Stuart Elliott: Is Football's Long, Glorious Reign Coming to an End?

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Every December, sports media celebrates the anniversary of the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, aka "the greatest game ever played." It was thrilling -- the first NFL playoff game to go into sudden-death overtime -- and 17 of the players wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But what makes that game on Dec. 28, 1958 so outstanding in retrospect is that, as Sports Illustrated proclaims, it "put football on the map" and sparked the love affair between the sport and television. The game, which the Colts won, 23-17, was broadcast nationally, by NBC, and it marked the start of a surge in popularity that eventually took the NFL to the top of the heap among sports-mad Americans.

As pro football benefited, so, too, did TV, filling gazillions of hours of airtime with programming that viewers couldn't get enough of. And football coverage could be monetized like almost nothing else the networks offered, bringing in bagsful of ad dollars each season.

Marketers may grumble about the high cost of putting their pitches in front of football fans, but as it became harder to reach male audiences they delighted in the NFL's ability to draw guys to the tube to see commercials for cars, beer, tires, insurance, sneakers, credit cards and phones. The power of pro football is underlined by the fact that the Super Bowl long has been the biggest day of the year not only for the NFL but also for TV and for Madison Avenue.

Now, however, the goose that laid all those golden eggs may be an endangered species. Pro football, because it's almost always watched live, had seemed immune to the problems suffered by other types of TV fare. But to this point in the 2016-17 season, ratings unexpectedly have declined, in some instances by as much as 21 percent.

That has led top executives to worry whether the NFL's unique hold on TV viewers is loosening and even if -- gasp! -- pro football has peaked. There's enough concern that Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, has offered a suggestion that not long ago would have been deemed heresy: reducing the amount of commercial time during each game.

Any cutbacks would be part of efforts to address gripes that games are too long and unevenly paced. Those complaints are high on the list of theories to explain the sudden fall-off in NFL viewership. Maybe it's a backlash against players who protest during the national anthem or against the on-field violence that causes brain injuries.

Maybe it's because, apart from the Dallas Cowboys, there have been few teams with compelling story lines this season. That lack of excitement was in stark contrast to the outsized dramatics of the presidential campaign and, indeed, ratings have improved for some games played after Election Day. In an era of inattention, as people bury their heads in small screens, the game on big screens may need to be more action-packed and engrossing to hold their own against streaming video, apps and social media feeds.  

The factors that I consider most responsible for the ratings plunge all are related to expansion. There are more games now than there used to be, they're being played on more days of the week and they're being played abroad as well as on American soil. The danger is saturation, giving people more than they want or can take in. You know the saying "Too much is never enough"? I'm a big believer in another saying: "Always leave them wanting more."

While I'm unsure if the NFL should cut back the number of games each season, or reduce the rounds of playoffs, I'd strongly recommend trimming frequency to two days a week, Sunday, and Monday, and stop scheduling games on Thursday nights.

Playing regular-season games in London or other venues outside the United States is great for team owners, and it may offer NFL officials a way to test in real time the prospects for an International Football League. But I can't see what possible benefits there are for fans of those teams, and it's the fans for whom the games ought to be played. That's not just some high-minded sentiment; without the fans, there's no reason for marketers to pay all that money for pricey commercial time.

Speaking of which, I'd also vote for running fewer commercials during each game or at least shortening the ad breaks. Commercial loads are too high on TV, whatever the programming, and paring the interruptions during marquee content such as pro football would set a great example.

The one exception: the Super Bowl. There ought to be more commercials during the Super Bowl. Why? Because we should encourage marketers and agencies to participate in the one day of the year when consumers actually look forward to seeing ads.

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