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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Future of Monday Night Football

The Sports Economist has a post about the future of Monday Night Football.

And it isn't rosy. Apparently, Monday Night Football is losing $150 million a year, and it may be the case that ABC would like to shed the bird that has transformed itself from a shining eagle to a grouchy, overweight albatross.

At its inception, when there were say 7 TV channels in your town (each major affiliate, PBS and, if you were lucky, 3 UHF channels whose pictures could turn into snow if the TV dial slipped a bit), there wasn't all that much to watch. Add the melodramatic (and self-important) Howard Cosell, and there was pure theater. People watched because the world was smaller, there weren't that many alternatives, many of the games were competitive, and you just didn't know what Cosell would say.

Today, there are tons of alternatives, dozens of channels, HBO shows, to-order movies, what have you. People can get "footballed-out" over the weekend with all of the games they can see on Saturday (college) from say noon until past midnight and then on Sunday with an NFL package. The MNF announcers aren't bad, but people really don't watch the game for the announcers the way they did when they weren't realizing it (because TV was a carryover from radio, and in radio days people loved their announcers the way they loved the jolly uncles who used to come over and spoil them rotten). So the Cosell factor is gone. Perhaps for good. The product is only fair. MNF can't pick its games, and some of them have been rotten. And, as popular as the NFL is, the product has gotten a little stale. Teams play the same offensive and defensive schemes, and you just don't see RBs break the 70-yard runs or QBs hook up for the 80-yard hitch and go patterns the way you used to. It's more about control than it is about entertainment.

Parity has helped make the NFL better, in that it doesn't take all that much for a 3-13 team to turn into a 10-6 wild card team in a year or two if they manage their cap, draft well, sign a few free agents and stay relatively healthy. The problem is, that parity hasn't been good for MNF because the scheduling is done in advance and you don't know really which team will be stellar and which will not be. For example, if Priest Holmes goes down in KC or if Tom Brady goes down in New England, all of a sudden those teams' MNF games might be duds. Or, more simply, suppose the Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl trip turns out to be, in retrospect, a fluke. Then MNF is stuck again. And the odds of their scheduling the "up and coming" team are small.

So, MNF suffers from parity, suffers a bit from the sameness of the product, suffers somewhat from a "too much football" syndrome, suffers from built-in bad scheduling luck and starts too late back east. And perhaps other things as well. Still, football owes its popularity in no small part to gambling, and there are plenty of ill-advised gamblers out there who try to save their weekends by betting a big wad on the MNF game. Aren't those people enough to give MNF good ratings?

Apparently not.

They are all men in the 18-45 year-old category, and everyone knows that the ads don't sell on the sports pages. Correspondingly, they don't sell well here either. Unless, of course, these men were to watch the games with their significant others.

Which, apparently, they don't do in large enough numbers.

So what's really wrong with MNF? Can it be fixed? Can another network inject life into it?

Stay tuned.

Then again, if you're one of the loyal fans, they don't need to give you that advice. You're already there.

It's everyone else they're worried about.


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