Fast-forward 56 years. National Football League teams haven’t paid TV stations a dime in generations. Today, ESPN hands the league more than $1 billion a season, NBC sends a check for $600 million, Fox, CBS and DirecTV also cough up hundreds of millions, and it’s all happily split among 32 NFL franchises. Rather than paying to be watched on television these days, the Bears earn about $100 million a year from networks merely to be seen.
And seen they are. During the 2006 season, 16.3 million viewers on average watched NFL games on CBS, Fox and NBC, significantly higher than the average for primetime shows on all four networks. Only NBC’s “Heroes” cracked the top 10 in average rating when it came to the coveted demographic of men ages 18-49-years-old, a crucial fact for advertisers.
Without television, it is hard to imagine pro football existing in 2007. People forget that during the Truman Administration, the college game was far more popular. NFL franchises had folded by the dozens since the league’s founding in 1920. Pro football was second-rate; while drawing hard-core fans in some cities, the NFL left no national imprint.
According to “In Its Own Image: How Television Has Transformed Sport” by Benjamin Rader, it would be hard to find two entities better suited to one another.
“Television created millions of new fans for pro football,” he wrote. “The central requirement of the game — that the offense must move the ball 10 yards in four plays or give it up to the opposing team — set up recurring crisis points that kept the viewer’s attention riveted to the little silver screen.”
Michael MacCambridge, author of “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation,” points out that as pro football on television became more and more popular into the 1970s, it “proved to be a guaranteed method to attract a mass audience at exactly the time in television's history when the mass audience started to splinter and dissipate.”
But television’s embrace of the NFL has come at a price.
“NFL games last more than 30 minutes longer than they did 40 years ago. That's entirely because of television,” MacCambridge said. “Even as it has brought the game popularity, it has cost the game much of its pace and tempo. It's maddening to watch, and yet of course we do continue to watch.”
Though sportswriters often point to the sudden-death championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants in 1958 as the seminal moment when football, television and the nation’s fans came together, the true turning point occurred 12 years later, when “Monday Night Football” kicked off on ABC. Then, the game became an event, an entertainment spectacle, featuring a three-man booth led by the insufferable Howard Cosell. Parties were planned around the game, and at least one bar held a contest where the winner could throw a brick at Cosell’s image on the screen. During its lengthy run on free television, “Monday Night Football” was constantly one of the highest-rated shows every week of every fall.
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