3 Signs that Mark Cuban May Be Right About the Demise of the NFL
Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, recently discussed with reporters why he thought the NFL would implode in 10 years. Never far from controversy (having been fined over a dozen times by the NBA for comments about the league and officiating), Cuban’s declaration here is somewhat shocking – after all, this year’s Super Bowl was the most watched television program since … ever. NFL teams are valued at over $1 billion on average. Yes, even the Cleveland Browns are apparently worth over a billion dollars. Given the tremendous popularity of the NFL and its astronomical value, why should we pay any attention to what Cuban is saying?
Well, first, when a billionaire says something about business, it’s likely worth listening to. Secondly, there is some merit behind what he is saying. The gist of his argument is that the NFL is saturating the market by putting football on national television four nights a week via its new deal for Thursday Night Football moving to CBS. This means football every week on Thursday, Sunday, Monday, and Saturdays at the end of the season. The general view is that part of the NFL’s charm is its predictability and consumable nature – Sunday is football day, Monday night is special. Now, it’s poised to be all-NFL-all-the-time; a move that Cuban thinks will doom the league.
Maybe “implosion” is a bit strong, and I don’t think anything will doom the NFL in 10 years time, but the NFL has some issues that they will have to deal with to remain the most popular sport in America. All credit to Mark Cuban and his cogent, well thought out explanations, but there are a few concerns that deserve an expanded look:
- Attendance Issues
Football might be the most popular sport in America, as the Super Bowl ratings (and weekly viewership) clearly indicate, but NFL teams frequently experience difficulties filling stadiums. Only 2/3 of NFL teams regularly play in front of sellout crowds. Considering the season consists of merely 8 home games, this is more than a bit surprising. Worse yet, NFL playoff games have seen a dip in attendance as well. The reason is no mystery: watching the NFL from the comfort of your home, with access to multiple games, the ability to check your fantasy football team, up-to-the-minute stats, scores, news, and updates, along with the avoidance of crowds, belligerent fans, extraordinary cost and hassle of the stadium provides fans with a better viewing experience. Throw in HD-TVs, apps on tablets and smartphones, and the Red Zone Channel, and the cold stadium pales in comparison watching football from the living room.
Even more problematic, in Cuban’s view, three of the NFL’s major problems going forward are in your living room. In addition to the oversaturation problem (extrapolated below), Cuban thinks that the NFL relies too much on fantasy football to grab fans’ interest. He explains that fantasy football, like any other tech-based business, may not always be as popular as it is today. If that day comes, it’s not hard to see the NFL lose popularity, given that a primary reason many Americans watch football is a vested fantasy football or gambling interest.
Cuban also touched on the changing nature of television (a subject our own Kate Brown explored a few weeks ago) and how much the NFL relies on traditional television due to its audience size. If television consumption turns largely into video-on-demand, public stream, mobile stream etc. this could be a big problem for NFL viewership.
- Player Safety
Without a doubt, the NFL’s biggest problem right now is head injuries. Last October’s League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis painted a grim picture of the truth behind brain injuries as a result of playing football. But this topic has been around for a while. Hell, Malcolm Gladwell told us exactly what the sport of football was faced with 5 YEARS AGO!
Cuban comes right out with this problem in his explanation: “So why do I think the NFL will implode in 10 years? I wouldn’t want my son playing football, would you?” It’s tough to think of two words that spell more trouble for a sport than “Brain Injuries.” While high school and college football will continue to be prominent in this country, it’s not impossible that we will see more and more parents preventing their children from playing the sport, which could lead to lack of interest in football over time.
Yes, there has been a lawsuit initiated by former players. Yes, there is such a thing as NFLConcussionLitigation.com. Yes, the NFL has changed its rules dramatically over the last 5 years to deal with the issue of head injuries. Yes, this is an issue that will not go away because it is inherent in the sport. The NFL will need to continue to address this issue in a way that keeps the sport safe for players and appealing to its fans.
Mark Cuban’s major point for projecting the NFL’s demise is that the league is beginning to over-expand on TV. Cuban considered the fact that the NFL’s ratings on Sundays are the highest, followed by its ratings on Mondays, followed by its ratings on Thursdays. While he admitted that the NFL’s move to CBS for its Thursday night games will help viewership, Cuban asserted that continued expansion to other nights (i.e. Fridays and Saturdays) would begin to over-saturate the market and diminish the demand for football. Basically, moving to more days during the week will make the football-watching experience less special and encroach on the territory of high school and college football.
On the surface, this seems a little farfetched. After all, if ESPN airs a MAC game between Bowling Green and Miami of Ohio on a random Wednesday, people will watch in big numbers because it’s the only game on. But Cuban is right in saying that the current NFL model is near perfect – and a big part of it is because of the predictable schedule. Cuban makes a rational point suggesting that the NFL’s greed in this manner could be a pitfall. Once the NFL begins tinkering with the schedule, they risk negatively impacting viewership.
So despite the disapproval of his fellow billionaire-owner in town, Mark Cuban may deserve some credit from the NFL.
 To be clear, Mark Cuban’s five reasons are: (1) Safety concerns for youth football; (2) NFL player behavior; (3) Changing TV strategy; (4) Questioning the staying power of fantasy football; (5) Changes in TV consumption patterns.
Photo By: Josh Hallett (hyku) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/ – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en# –