It’s a strange thing to say, but the NFL, the most successful sports business in the world — an enterprise that brings in more money annually than the NBA and Premier League, combined — needs a win.
They’re poised to get one this weekend, but only if the Seattle Seahawks cooperate.
It’s no secret that television ratings are down for the NFL this season, and that’s obviously a concern for the league. Commissioner Roger Goodell calls the downtick a “cyclical” part of rapid growth, and he’s correct. The league has also taken a stance that ratings are down because of the presidential election’s “unprecedented interest” and they’re right about that too.
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The downtick cannot be that easily written off, though. So far this year 27 of 28 prime-time games have failed to beat the viewership numbers of the same 2015 time slot, and that kind of trend should scare the NFL to its core. Those prime-time, showcase contests are the games the league counts on to turn its current $13 billion in revenue into Goodell’s goal of $25 billion by 2027 (going rate for a primetime rate these days: $45 million per contest).
The election is over, but the NFL’s ratings problem clearly went beyond that competition — the television viewing experience (number of advertisements, pace of play) has to be taken into account, too. NBA ratings are up this season, so why are the NFL's in freefall?
The largest on-field issue, of course, is the quality of play. Viewer retention is part of television ratings and if you were able to watch the entirety of Browns-Ravens on Thursday night, you should see a psychiatric professional immediately. The NFL has always pushed for parity, and they’ve gotten it this year — but you can have parity without quality, and in the showcase games this year that’s often been shockingly apparent.
But not with Sunday night’s Patriots – Seahawks game. The Patriots are, hands down, the best team in the NFL and the Seahawks appear to be the top contender in the NFC. This is one impressive matchup — perhaps even a Super Bowl preview.
This is a market-correcting game for the NFL — see, it was the election! — so long as it’s a good one.
That’s not guaranteed.
The Seahawks have two schedule disadvantages going against them in this game — a double-whammy if there ever was one — on top of having to take on the best team in the NFL.
The first problem is that the Seahawks played on Monday night — they’re on a short week. If they were playing the 49ers Sunday, that might not have been a problem, but when you’re playing the Patriots, you want as much time as possible to heal and prepare.
You especially want that extra time when you have to travel 3,000 miles east for the game.
West Coast teams have won only 35 percent of road games against East Coast teams since 2003, a number that lends credence to the belief that there’s a larger factor at play than simple home field advantage — the further they travel, the more they lose.
Sure enough, the Seahawks are more than a touchdown underdogs Sunday, and that spread is rising.
The NFL won’t want to hear that — for one, it pretends that betting isn’t happening, but also because a lopsided Patriots win won’t keep East Coast viewers (more than 50 percent of the nation lives in the time zone) from getting a good night’s rest.
There aren’t too many exciting prime-time games left on the NFL schedule (unless you want to get excited about the Chiefs or New York Giants, which means you were probably already watching the games), so the league will surely be rooting for the Seahawks to summon some mystic strength and deliver its A-game to Foxborough.
The NFL really needs a win, and the biggest one it could get is a Seahawks victory Sunday night.