Shifts in American Football

Last night, ESPN radio broadcast a statistic that stunned its reporter. In comparing viewership of Monday’s National Collegiate Championship Game with that for the Wild Card playoff game between Green Bay and the New York Giants, he found that 25 million people watched the national championship game while nearly 40 million watched the NFL Wild Card game. He granted that, yes, New York is the country’s largest media market, but the Sunday game was not especially close or well-played, while the Monday game saw all of the networks showing reruns and other programming, since they suspected that most viewers would be glued to the most important college game of the year and one that turned out to be extraordinarily exciting. His question, then, was what happened?

It is a good question and one that I can’t pretend to know how to answer, but it points to a number of issues, some of them non-football related, that may be possibilities.

The College Championship game featured Alabama and Clemson. With no disrespect intended toward either university, we have to wonder whether Alabama’s sheer dominance in recent years has turned off potential viewers. We also have to wonder if, by having two schools from the same geographic area, viewers from other parts of the country simply decided they didn’t care much who won the game.

Perhaps…but the NFL had its largest market share during the years in which the Dallas Cowboys were dominant, and similar market share distributions have been the norm in other sports. Sociologists have hypothesized that having a “dynasty” team increased viewership because the public decides either to love or hate the team that wins all the time. Under that theory, viewership for Alabama versus Clemson should have reached an all-time high.

As for geographical bias, while it may be a more likely explanation, it still seems to fall short. It is difficult to determine with any certainty whether geography influences college sports viewership because the NCAA constantly changes its parameters for championship participation in its big-money sports on a regular basis. The best comparisons I can find have been when two teams from the same conference competed for the national championship in men’s basketball. In each case, there was no appreciable rise or decline in comparing those games to their counterparts in the years before and after.

One final hypothesis I have heard is that the United States has turned away from football, in general, because of drug allegations, other criminal accusations and, most critically, concerns about post-concussion syndrome. All of these issues appear in headlines far more often than in the past.

However, an examination of sports pages over the past three months shows that concerns over these issues, concerns that one might expect to drive away viewers, are  perceived as a much greater problem for professional football than for college football. If this hypothesis were true, we would expect that the college game would outdraw the NFL game by 60%, not the other way around.

So what is it? Less time to generate enthusiasm for a college team whose star players will likely leave after only three years? Too much attention paid to college coaches? I simply don’t know.

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