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.
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.
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.
Will Wilson didn’t win the weekly football pool even once this season.
Image credit: Flickr user Malingering.