I’m beginning to think Roger Goodell could stage a contest between rival cockfighters, place the NFL shield between them, and 6.8 million people would watch. Hubcaps? Lip balm? Palm fronds? Whatever Goodell sells, America seems ready to buy it, including the seemingly mundane exercise of announcing where a 21-year-old kid will relocate for his first taste of gainful employment.
The total audience for the first round of this year’s NFL draft, via ESPN’s telecast, was an astounding 9.9 million viewers. That blew away by more than 2.5 million the previous record in 2010. Combined with the 2.5 million who watched on the NFL Network, 12.4 million people saw the draft, a figure obviously spiked by the Johnny Freefall drama but mostly driven by America’s insatiable thirst for all things NFL, no matter the time of year. And if the measure is based on how many people watched at least one minute of the show? Then total viewership was 32 million, up from 25 million last year.
Thirty two million? Jimmy Fallon had 6.2 million for his “Tonight Show’’ debut. Thirty two million? The World Series averaged 14.9 million last fall. Thirty two million? “Mad Men’’ is averaging about 2.3 million viewers in its final season. Is it possible the NFL could start a show of people doing nothing but retrieving kicking tees and still pull 3.9 million viewers?
“Thank you, fans, for making last night the most-watched draft in our history,’’ Goodell said before the second round, which, one would think, would draw a significantly lower number until you ponder the unprecedented appeal of the National Football League.
What’s scary is how the commissioner and his broadcast partners could exploit the draft in ways unimaginable. The league is thinking of spreading the event over four days and staging it in other cities, such as Chicago or Los Angeles next year, when, if Goodell really wanted to milk it, he could let the draft dominate the entire offseason. Think about it: Use an entire month and have one first-round selection each night. Then extend the second round through the entire next month, and the other rounds through entire other months, until Goodell successfully has dominated the sports calendar from the end of the Super Bowl to the start of training camps.
As it is, the NFL is on three days a week during the season. Has it occurred to anyone that a game could be played every night of every week with certain creative scheduling? And that the masses would watch? You might think this is leading to overexposure and ultimate nausea, with NBA owner Mark Cuban recently opining of the NFL, “They’re trying to take over every night of TV. And initially, it’ll be the biggest rating thing there is. Then, if they get Saturday, now they’re impacting college. And then if they go to Wednesday, at some point, people get sick of it. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business.”
It’s wishful, wishful, wishful, wishful, wishful thinking on his part. Fact is, there has been no evidence, even during a life-and-death concussion crisis, that people are sick of the NFL. If anything, they want more content and programming, offseason included, whether it’s mocking the migraine-inducing mock drafts — how many times did Mel Kiper change his mock before the later May 8 date? — or actually making a big deal out of (trumpets, drums) Schedule Release Day. Dark stories continue to cloud the league, whether it’s the drug and DUI busts of Colts owner Jim Irsay or the offseason problems of Ray Rice and Aldon Smith or the Manziel-buzz-crushing news that Cleveland’s gamebreaking receiver, Josh Gordon, may be facing a season-long suspension after a third failed drug test.
The fans keep tuning in anyway. Nothing can ruin their football high.
While baseball continues to largely bore us and get old before our eyes, and while niche sports like golf and tennis fade in relevance, the entirety of the American demographic is fixed on two sports. We love the NFL and college football, and we enjoy basketball — the NBA and March Madness. But the NFL is the preeminent product, by an insurmountable distance, because it continues to lure all ages and sexes while somehow overcoming an image problem.
The game happens to kill the people who play it.
And still, we crave it like heroin, which happens to kill the people who use it.
I see a correlation. The NFL is our heroin.