Opinion

Can any sport break the NFL’s stranglehold on America?

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger

When I was a very young boy, January 1 was the exclusive province of college football. If you were a sports fan, your agenda was pretty much set from the kickoff of the Cotton Bowl just past noon on the East Coast all the way until the final gun at the Orange Bowl sometime around midnight.

Later, thanks to the disaster that is the BCS, many of the big bowl games abandoned New Year’s Day (replaced by a gaggle of matchups nobody cares about), a decision that allowed the NHL to stake its own claim to the holiday with the NHL Winter Classic.

But New Year’s Day 2012 was different. Because the holiday fell on a Sunday, college football and professional hockey headed for the doors and a soft landing on January 2, knowing that competing against the NFL on national television was nothing more than a fool’s errand.

According to Nielsen, more than 200 million people watched NFL games in 2011, an average of 17.5 million per viewers per game. Thirty-seven telecasts averaged more than 20 million viewers, a number that broke a record that was set in 2010. “Sunday Night Football” was the highest-rated show in prime time, while “Monday Night Football” was the number one show on cable television for the sixth year in a row, despite featuring a number of games that were complete dogs.

Even baseball’s World Series is overshadowed in the ratings by regular-season NFL games.

But what is more amazing than the ratings and the total numbers of viewers is the fact that the NFL’s television numbers have grown in strength even as entertainment choices have increased and ratings for other network programming have collapsed.

With television ratings like that, and contracts renewals grabbing staggering numbers, even the worst teams in pro football have valuations approaching $1 billion. The Jacksonville Jaguars play in the league’s third-smallest television market and finished a miserable regular season with a 5-11 record, yet the Jaguars still fetched $760 million when Wayne Weaver sold the team to Shahid Khan in November.

In the 1993 science-fiction farce “Demolition Man,” Sylvester Stallone awakens from a cryogenic slumber to discover that all restaurants are owned by Taco Bell. When it comes to television sports, one wonders whether or not we’re closer to that sort of situation than we might think.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help  integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.