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Forsaking the Casual Fan

Friday, January 12, 2007

Major League Baseball and the National Football League are suffocating the cultures of their sports. Short-term revenue maximization could drive large parts of their audiences away.

This season, the unfortunate task of running the office football pool fell to me. As I still haven’t been granted taxing power—a regrettable Constitutional oversight—I had to convince people to voluntarily redistribute their wealth to football diehards. I couldn’t even fall back on “It’s for a good cause,” like the Girl Scout cookie seller down the hall who was my nearest competitor for office lunch money. On the other hand, I was offering the most popular sport in the nation. Can’t miss, right? Thanks to the wisdom of the NFL, my task this season became nearly impossible, and the office pool all but died for lack of interest. The league’s sage maneuver? Thursday night football on the NFL Network.

Haven’t heard of NFL Network? The league launched it back in 2003. Until this season, its programming consisted of NFL Films highlights, analysis and discussion shows, news and updates, and preseason games. All of which makes it a nice channel to have—if you really, really like professional football. Most people, however, have a merely passing interest in football, if any. The vast majority of fans are casual: about 130 million people watch the Super Bowl, but only about 20 million watch the average nationally televised regular season game. Several cable companies, including TimeWarner and Cablevision, do not carry NFL Network as part of their basic cable packages, offering it instead as part of their premium sports packages.

Why are professional sports leagues threatening to stamp out the cultural ties that keep casual fans interested in sports?

The NFL Network wanted to be part of the lucrative basic lineups, which have more viewers and more revenue than any of the special packages. In order to hold cable carriers’ feet to the fire, the league took advantage of its power to reschedule the actual games (not just the television), slating live games to take place on Thursday nights in late November and December so that other sports wouldn’t provide substitutes for fans without NFL Network on their cable package. That aggressive scheduling move triggered an online public relations fit. TimeWarner opened a website called NFLgetREAL, the NFL responded with iwantNFLNetwork, and an unaffiliated party established timewarnergetreal. With negotiation savvy like this, it’s little wonder that no deal was reached. The scheduling also effectively spoiled my office pool.

For casual fans, as opposed to the diehards, spectator sports are a cultural artifact with unique rhythms and socialization rituals: we clean in the spring, we shop the day after Thanksgiving, and we watch football on Sundays. For casual fans, interest in the culture of football on Sunday afternoons—and, crucially, around the water cooler on Monday mornings—depended on a rhythm that was broken once games began taking place midweek. Casual office pool participants didn’t want to structure their weeks like hardcore fans. For them, the choice wasn’t between football and no football, as the NFL would like to believe, but between football and reading, or sewing, or learning Mandarin, or watching sitcoms, or whatever it is that people do on Thursday evenings in December. These casual fans weren’t interested in the game for the game’s sake. They were involved because the game opened up a social interaction without much time commitment. Many people in my office only watched on Sunday in order to participate in the pool, and participated in the pool because it only involved Sunday (with a Monday bonus if they were still in the running). For them, the NFL vanished between Tuesday and Saturday. When Thursdays became mandatory, the NFL ceased to exist for them altogether.

Interestingly, Major League Baseball just tried a similar stunt with fantasy league fans who use real-world baseball statistics. MLB, the MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM), and the MLB Players Association announced an agreement in 2005 that granted MLBAM the exclusive right to distribute baseball statistics that include the names of the players; as Maury Brown of The Hardball Times noted at the time, “In that sense it's a clever way of killing the golden goose: You can use the stats all you want, but stats without the ability to associate them to a player is nothing more than a collection of numbers that serves no purpose in a fantasy league format.” We might like Alfonso Soriano because he hits 40 home runs, but it is still Alfonso Soriano whom we like; or to put it another way, Pete Rose without a name would not smell as sweet.

Many suppliers of fantasy baseball went for the gambit and paid MLBAM $2 million for player names and pictures, as well as logos. CBC Distribution and Marketing of St. Louis went a different route—they sued the pants off Major League Baseball. And CBC won. That’s probably good for baseball: assuming fantasy baseball functions something like my office football pool, MLB might have been saved from itself when Judge Mary Ann Medler ruled against baseball’s attempt to control the intellectual property rights to baseball statistics. MLB filed an appeal in December.

Malingering All of this raises one question: why are professional sports leagues threatening to stamp out the cultural ties that keep casual fans interested in sports? Surely they are shrewd enough to recognize the risk—attempts to capture all possible present profits drive potential and future users to other hobbies. Fantasy sports are a billion dollar a year business, but much of that would erode quickly if initial entry costs were raised.

Both leagues have a “last period problem”—a phrase not from the language of sports, but of economics. Today’s ballplayers and owners don’t care if tomorrow’s ballplayers and owners make a dime, so they’re willing to discourage potential fans of the future in order to capitalize on the diehards right now. Until the global tech explosion of the last 15 years, it was never worth cashing out: young players and owners who expected to hold their teams for awhile saw the upside of long-term growth, and just as importantly, the possible short-term gains weren’t that great. However, most teams are no longer “the family business,” but are pieces of business conglomerates and the favorite toys of overnight billionaires, which makes rapid turnover in team ownership more likely. And with the growth of cable systems, the internet, and the global audience, enormous short-term sums now go uncaptured. The fan in me wants to scream bloody murder, but I can empathize: Whatever I might think of the already rich players and already even richer owners, I’d want those extra millions too.

Both football and baseball have been blessed by the globalizing technological advances of the late 20th century, but in trying to hoard all of the windfall, they might damn themselves in the 21st. Both could learn something from basketball: NBA commissioner David Stern has kept the league from trying such tricks—and wisely backed off after the recent “new ball” fiasco—which helps explain why basketball has joined soccer as a global gaming behemoth. MLB and the NFL have a world of potential casual fans; they will need strong, visionary commissioners and sharp long-term perspective to prosper beyond their core markets.

Image credit: Flickr user Malingering.

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