Can the NFL over-hype itself?

As the NFC and AFC title games slowly approach, I wonder: can the NFL over-hype its product?

On one hand, it appears not. NFL television ratings have been excellent this year (regular season stats here). The league has a number of stars that draw a wide range of attention, from the good (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning) to the bad (Brett Favre, Michael Vick’s sage in recent years). Particularly at this time of year, talk about the NFL dominates the airwaves – a number of other sports are mid-season. The final four teams remaining in the playoffs are historic franchises that have passionate fan bases. Even with Bill Simmon’s recent claim that there is “there’s at least one great [NBA] game” each night, other sports can’t match the popularity of the NFL. The NFL even thinks it can sell $200 tickets for a “party plaza” outside of the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, it is A LOT of talk. In the weeks between playoff games, it seems that ESPN can’t stop talking about the next match-ups. In Chicago, everyone has been talking Bears-Packers. The teams already have played twice so how much more is there to discuss? Could it get to the point where fans tune out the week before and are just happy to get the game over with? And interestingly, it only gets worse for the Super Bowl: then we get the infamous “Media Day.” Though the Super Bowl gets tremendous ratings, how often does the game match the hype? In my lifetime of watching Super Bowls, I distinctly remember being disappointed by most of them. (A couple stand out in memory: the Giants-Bills match-up in 1991, Rams and Titans in 2000, the Bears-Colts in 2007, Patriots-Giants in 2008, Steelers-Cardinals in 2009.)

From a broader perspective, there is no guarantee that the popularity of the NFL will be maintained over the years, let alone continue to increase. (Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, points this out.) The first non-sports comparison that comes to mind are presidential elections. Yesterday, the New York Times reported how President Obama is getting his next campaign in order and plans to formally declare his candidacy in two months. From now until November 2012, this is what we will hear about in the news: who will challenge Obama, how much money will be raised, what are the issues, who has the best image, what do the latest polls say, etc. Don’t voters, at least some of them, get burned out by all of this by the time the actual election takes place? The idea that some countries have of holding more defined election seasons, typically announced by the current leader and lasting for a few months, seems preferable to this endless, over-hyped presidential election season.

I am sure someone has done research on over-hyping. For the NFL, the question is when will it saturate its market. Of course, one way around this is to expand your market and head overseas. (They are trying to do this with games in Toronto, London, and Mexico City in recent years. But the NBA is way ahead of them.) In the meantime, the sporting public will get heavy doses of talk, analysis, and replays. I, for one, will be very happy when it finally gets to 2 PM Sunday afternoon and we can actually see whether the Bears and Packers will win.

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