On October 26, TNT viewers had a surprise. Inside The NBA, the channel’s flagship program with Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and presenter Ernie Johnson, is on the menu after the evening’s matches. Traditionally scheduled on Thursday, the show has been brought forward to Tuesday. TNT did not warn anyone, perhaps not to publicly admit what everyone will however very quickly understand: the head-on clash with the NFL’s Thursday Night Game is hurting its audiences too much. Two days later, TNT announces that Inside The NBA will now be broadcast on Tuesday evenings until the end of 2021. The time that the NFL regular season ends. A great first.
What could have been only an epiphenomenon is in reality only further proof of the increasingly unbalanced balance of power between the two main American Leagues. This is not the first and probably the last time that the NBA has to retreat to avoid this type of frontal shock that it knows it cannot win. For ten years, she gave up scheduling matches on Thanksgiving Day. The end of a tradition that has been firmly rooted for decades. In question, already, the face-to-face with the “double header” of the NFL who, by placing two matches on this festive Thursday, focused attention … and audiences.
Thanksgiving Thursday, one of the (many) highlights of the NFL season.
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75 of the top 100 TV audiences in 2021
It is difficult to measure, from this side of the Atlantic, the omnipotence of the League led since 2006 by commissioner Roger Goodell, a controversial and often criticized personality, but who has undeniably contributed to setting new economic standards. The NFL enjoys unparalleled popularity in the United States, despite the controversy surrounding the dangerousness of this sport. In 2014, Barack Obama himself had dropped a sentence that had a lot of talk: “If I had a son, I wouldn’t let him become a professional footballer“.
But if some may hesitate to play US football, or to let their children take this path, almost everyone continues to watch it. More than ever, even. The Top 100 American TV audiences in 2021, unveiled a few days ago by Nielsen (US mediametry), confirms the ultra-dominance of the NFL in this area. 75 of the top 100 viewership shows last year were NFL games or shows.
Even more striking, the League monopolizes 28 of the first 30 hearings. Only exceptions? Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration and his address to Congress. No game of one of the other professional US sports organizations (NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS…) manages to slip into the Top 100. Regarding sport, the crumbs left by the NFL concern the Tokyo Olympics (10), college football (7), and college basketball (2).
The League that was worth (more than) 100 billion
The economic weight of the different Leagues does not say anything else. The Super Bowl, the flagship of the NFL, alone generates more revenue, not than the NBA Finals and the World Series (the final series of the baseball championship), but than all of the NBA and MLB playoffs. And according to Forbes magazine’s annual ranking, 26 of the 50 most economically powerful teams in the world of sport come from the NFL, compared to 9 in the NBA and “soccer” (with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona in the Top 5) and 6 for MLB. During the last pre-Covid season, which penalized all the championships, in particular due to closed-door measures, the NFL exceeded 17 billion in revenue, almost as much as the NBA and MLB combined.
And this gap has not finished widening, at least in the short term. Roger Goodell has set the target: 25 billion in revenue by 2025. It appears almost “modest”. In March 2021, the NFL indeed completed its new round of funding in terms of TV rights. They are astronomical. The sum corresponds to approximately double what the NFL currently earns from the broadcasting of its matches, within the framework of commitments made until 2022 inclusive. The next contract will cover 11 seasons (2023-2033) and will bring between 105 and 110 billion dollars to the League, or nearly 10 billion per season. Four times more, there too, than what the NBA touches.
The big networks like CBS, NBC and Fox, as well as ESPN, long-time partners of the NFL, did not hesitate to break the bank. Because they know the game is worth the candle, but also because of the threat of new players like Amazon. The firm of Jeff Bezos entered for the first time in this historic round table, by offering itself the exclusivity of the match on Thursday evening. For a single weekly game, Amazon will shell out around $900 million. But it also paid for the exclusive online rights, another sinews of this war. Goodell’s NFL counts the points and picks up the tickets.
The danger of dropping out among young people?
However, it has a significant handicap: its international influence, much lower than that of the NBA. US football is by definition a much less universal sport than basketball. However, there too, it is progressing, thanks in particular to a man: Tom Brady. Seven-time award-winning quarterback Vince Lombardi is a personality who has transcended his discipline.
The fact remains that the Brady effect, “the NFL’s first global icon” as ESPN defines him, is felt, year after year. While the NFL has been gaining market share in the United Kingdom for a while (the number of people who have watched at least one NFL game has increased by 65% in three years), it is now also reaching markets such as Brazil (it is the husband of the Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen), China, Australia, Mexico or… Denmark. Aware of his position, Tom Brady does not hesitate to promote his sport abroad, as during his trip to China in 2017. But Brady-dependence is a concern.
The other pitfall that awaits the NFL is the new generation. According to a poll conducted at the end of 2019, 33% of American adults named the NFL as their favorite league, far ahead of MLB (16%), NBA (10%), NHL (5%) and MLS (3%). But among 18-22 year olds, the NFL plummets to 23%, while the NBA is growing very sharply, to 19%. When Generation Z takes power in terms of consumption, will we see a form of rebalancing? It’s possible. But this will take time. In the meantime, the NFL, strong in its omnipotence, continues to bring rain and shine to the American sports landscape.
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