Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Homework from Ted Leonsis and No, I don’t Think Roger Goodell is a “Poor Sap”

After a spirited email exchange with about 25 volleys, Mr. Leonsis did convince me not to overvalue the Nielsen Ratings for sporting events when it came to trying to correlate that to anything(other than the number of people who tuned in).

Then he gave me a book recommendation: The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Market Place. He told me he thought that was the kind of stuff I ought to be writing about.
By page 20, I was inclined to agree with him. The book combines so many things I love:

· Capitalism
· Psychology
· Sociology
· Philosophy
· Research/Science
· Fun with Numbers (data)
· and SPORTS!

While the Nielsen Ratings for NHL games are definitely bleak relative to NFL, MLB and NBA, what’s happening with the NHL is all part of a bigger trend. It may look worse for the NHL ratings wise (at least in terms of the Stanley Cup), but it’s all part of the same overall trend. All kinds of entertainment and “free-time” choices are available, and many of them don’t involve the television at all. The free-time itself is in limited supply.

The NBA, and MLB have certainly seen ratings declines. NBA Finals with scores like 75-72 aren’t helping with the ratings. We like scoring, just like we like home runs (I won’t go off into the steroids rant here) we want to see Lebron score 50 points and even if they lost 127-112, we’d like that better. 75-72 isn’t attractive to the casual fan.

The NFL faces the same challenges. The Super Bowl will probably remain golden for a long, long time though. It’s just a hunch, but the Super Bowl – that’s not about “football”. That’s about a national holiday to have an excuse to get drunk and have a party on a Sunday. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, only better because there’s gambling, square pools, etc. We’re not giving that up any sooner than we’re giving up St. Patrick’s Day.

But here’s the thing. My brain couldn’t really process it at first because it seems so counter intuitive to me. The NFL, NBA, MLB and the NHL will continue to experience lower ratings vs. the glory days, and mostly, the ratings aren’t going to come back. I know the NFL will try to squeeze out Brady vs. Manning in primetime wherever it can and it has the challenge of making more of its personalities interesting to the public in ways that don’t involve arrests for possessing 6,000 semi-automatic weapons.

Yesterday I said Tagliabue was a genius for getting out when he did, and that poor sap Roger Goodell was about to not know what hit him. I didn’t really mean that. They say do what you love, and you can’t go wrong, and sometimes I just love being a jackass. I said that the % of the Cincinnati Bengals arrested would be the least of his worries.

In truth, I believe Goodell’s focus is correct. Specifically because at a time when your fan base is bound to erode somewhat no matter what you do – and it will because “free-time” is limited, but the number of choices we have to fill the free-time keeps growing and growing – you absolutely do not want to have your players modeling behavior that risks alienating a fan base that was already bound to erode. It’s like pushing them out the door. I like his focus. And I like that Pacman “make it rain” Jones will not be suiting up for a single game this year.

But here’s the thing that’s counterintuitive. Despite the eroding fan bases and television ratings, the actual value and health of these leagues can continue to grow anyway, provided it’s managed well.

While even the NFL can’t escape the fan erosion, they of ALL the leagues are best positioned to really rake it in despite the erosion. Managed well, the MLB, NBA and NHL (yes, the NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE – there, I said it) can all do the same, albeit on a smaller scale. It was true 20 years ago and it is still true today. Even with record low ratings.

As for “record low Nielsen ratings” – breathe it in! We’re in a trend to hear that phrase applied to many things. Not just NHL, or NBA finals – it’s already hit the evening news. Katie Couric is taking the heat for that, but really, it’s all part of the same game – limited free time, more choices, more record low ratings. For just about everything really.

But for now and the foreseeable future, television will be a very powerful medium, but with fewer and fewer things that have the capability to bring in massive # of people. That makes the NFL worth…more than it has ever been. Even with eroding ratings. I am not worried about Roger Goodell, and he is no poor sap.

I predict a follow up to the book The Elusive Fan. It will be: The Elusive Viewer: Reinventing Television in a Crowded Marketplace. The beauty of it is, they could just do a find and replace to randomly replace all the “sports” terms with television terms and as is – this book would be more valuable to TV executives than anything they’re reading in Variety. Or, they could just read it as is.

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