As most people agree, fall is the best season of the year, and football is a big reason why. Going to a football game on a crisp Friday night, Saturday, or Sunday is as American as apple pie. Technological advances, meanwhile, have made it simple for us to follow our favorite teams from around the world. I’m sitting here in Jacksonville, Florida knowing that I’ll be able to watch the next Iowa State football game with ease. (Looking forward to Thursday night on ESPN!)
But watching my favorite NFL team, the Minnesota Vikings, from the Sunshine State is a tougher task. The NFL’s television policies are extraordinarily unfriendly to fans and are a vestige of an era with far fewer channels ready and waiting to broadcast football games. While, admittedly, the NFL lacks motivation to change their policies because they are essentially able to print their own money at this point and DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket is a big piece of that, the NFL should broadcast more games in order to maintain their appeal to increasingly transient fanbases with increasing demands on their wallets.
Let’s take a look at some numbers. Right now, on a typical NFL Sunday, fans have four games available to watch: two in the early time slot (1:00 PM Eastern) on CBS and FOX, one in the late slot (4:00 or 4:30) on either CBS or FOX, and one night game at 8:30 on NBC. Viewers in the home market of an NFL team, though, will have fewer options when their local team is playing at home. As I learned during Week 2, when the Jaguars are playing at EverBank Field during a time slot where two games should be broadcast, the non-Jags game is blacked out. The only game on TV in the early slot for me was a total blowout. On a day with thirteen NFL games, the league allowed me to watch three that had been chosen in advance.
There is one option, and only one option, to increase the number of full games you can watch: NFL Sunday Ticket. (As an aside, I know many people watch the NFL RedZone channel during the early time slot to keep up on all of the games, but it’s not really watching a football game so much as seeing highlights of games semi-live.) DirecTV pays the NFL about $1.5 billion per year for the exclusive right to air out-of-market games. And you better believe that they charge an arm and a leg to recoup that investment.
I was a Sunday Ticket subscriber in 2015 and 2016 thanks the student discount, and it is a good service. DirecTV allows customers who live at an address that cannot have satellite TV service to sign up for Sunday Ticket over the Internet, so as an apartment dweller, I was in. I had considered signing up again this season, but as I’m no longer a student (and companies have gotten wise to “.edu” email addresses and now use more sophisticated verification services), I would have been required to pay full price: $280.
$280 for seventeen weeks of football. Seventeen Sundays, basically. That’s essentially spending $16 and change for each Sunday of football.
Let me briefly pause to describe my current television service. I’m a PlayStation Vue subscriber, a service that delivers cable TV over the Internet. For $45 a month, I have access to ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, FS1, FS2, Fox Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, Big Ten Network, and SEC Network, among others (including many non-sports channels). Every single channel I just listed will show multiple college football games each Saturday and more during the week.
Vue costs about $11 a week. Sunday Ticket? More than $16. It’s the price of a burger and a beer at a sports bar with Sunday Ticket every week. It just isn’t justifiable at that price point.
The most frustrating part is that it would be so simple for the NFL to fix this. Why should only CBS and FOX get to have the fun? If the NFL allowed ABC or NBC to broadcast a third early game, for example, the options available to viewers nationwide would instantly jump by 50%. The two-network framework was established when FOX bought the rights to NFC games, and CBS to AFC games, but that has changed as the networks occasionally adjust their inventory to get the best games on TV. I’m sure ESPN would love to get in the mix on Sundays, too, and these network executives could figure out how to divvy up the inventory. Of course, all of these additional networks would come with new broadcasting contracts ($$$) and new advertising revenue on games with broader reach and more viewers ($$$).
And just like the NFL could easily broadcast four early games nationwide, how about two or three late games? There are four broadcast networks, plus ESPN (and many other cable networks), ready and willing. Now, if the league wants to keep a spotlight on Sunday Night Football, they can leave that game alone in that time slot. But during the day on Sunday, why not show some more games?
The NFL could still hold back inventory to maintain some value in Sunday Ticket. I’m not saying every game should be broadcast on an existing network and that the league should abandon the Sunday Ticket model. In a typical regular season week, there are fourteen games (and four teams on a bye week). One of these games is on Monday night, and one is on Sunday night. Another is on Thursday night, but many people, including some in the league office, think adding Thursday games was a mistake, so let’s say the NFL ditches those. That leaves twelve games to be played during the early and late time slots on Sunday. If the NFL finds networks to broadcast four of the early games and two of the late games (versus the current two and one), that still leaves six games – or half of the overall inventory – that would be exclusively distributed by Sunday Ticket. Hardcore fans would still buy the service!
I know the NFL is rolling in money from the fans who do choose to spend $280 on Sunday Ticket, and that’s why they won’t change. I’m not arguing that, right now in 2017, the NFL could make more money by doing things differently. But the current system is bad for the fans, and what’s bad for fans is bad for the NFL. Maximizing profits today through NFL Sunday Ticket will shrink the league’s reach over the long term. Lots of people grow up in one place, get attachments to a team, and then move! These people are left with three choices: pay up for Sunday Ticket, find some method of questionable legality to watch their team, or lower their interest in the NFL and watch fewer games. In time, the fans who choose that third option will cost the NFL. But they can fix it, and they should. Let us watch more games.