Local eccentric billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is not exactly known for being a model of circumspect restraint (last week on Shark Tank, he invested real money in a business that sells energy bars packed full of crickets). Still, he made headlines last night in the sports world by declaring that the National Football League—America’s most popular sports entertainment by a wide country mile—was going to “implode.”
As ESPN reports, Cuban’s pre-game chat with reporters yielded this quote about the future of the NFL:
“I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion,” Cuban said Sunday evening when his pregame conversation with reporters, which covered a broad range of topics, swayed toward football. “I’m just telling you, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting hoggy. Just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way.
“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 number one of business.”
Cuban went on to compare the saturation of NFL games on television with the rise and decline of early-00’s games how fad Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, which went from being a brief national obsession to a “wait, is that still on?” after it expanded its programming to five nights a week. By continuing to schedule Thursday night NFL games, Cuban suggested, the league was doing the same thing to its product.
Cuban, whose Mavericks followed up their 2011 NBA championship season by placing seventh in the conference and farting out of the playoffs in the first round the following year (and missing the postseason altogether the year after that), knows a thing or two about watching a good thing implode.
Still, there is an argument to be made against Cuban’s claim hinges. First, the television rights for the first eight weeks of the NFL’s Thursday night package were sold to CBS for the upcoming season—after years of airing only on the league’s limited-availability cable network, the NFL Network—for a reported $250 million. That’s the rate paid for half the season, a mere eight games (the remaining eight games will air exclusively on the NFL Network). If “rule number one of business” is that getting greedy on a good thing turns on you, we’d be curious about where “if someone is offering you upwards of $30 million a week for the right to simulcast a package that’s already existed for several years” lands on the list of business rules.
Second, the fans that Cuban suspects will turn the other way because of the league’s greedy broadcast schedule so far have done only the opposite. Last year was the eighth season that the NFL scheduled a slate of Thursday night games, and the ratings for those games set new viewership records. Cuban’s obviously a smart businessman—you don’t accumulate an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion otherwise—but his “pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered” maxim that he sees coming ten years down the line via oversaturation is a weird prediction: At the very least, it’s hard to understand why it’ll take eighteen seasons for Thursday Night Football to turn viewers away. (We’re going to suspect instead that Cuban hadn’t realized that the package is already nearly a decade old.)
But all of this ignores the real elephant in the room when talking about the future of the NFL, which is that the league’s future is less likely to be determined by whether fans get sick of having to cancel Thursday night plans when their team is playing on CBS or the NFL Network, and much more likely to be determined by whether there’s a viable crop of young talent even playing the game when today’s twelve-year-olds—whose parents are increasingly unlikely to let them play the game—are tomorrow’s draft-eligible incoming rookies.
The fact is, the ten-year future of the NFL hinges much more on if the game is sustainable for reasons that have little to do with how often it’s on television. As the Dallas Morning News reported last month, the game’s future is cloudy because of the dropping participation of young players.
Pop Warner, which bills itself as the largest youth football, cheer and dance program in the world, is in 42 states and several foreign countries. Participation in football from 2010 — the first year it says it has accurate statistics — to 2013 dropped from 248,899 to 225,000. That’s down almost 10 percent.
John Pruce, the Pennsylvania-based organization’s director of media relations, cited three reasons for the drop: fewer young people participating in organized sports, perhaps because of the economy; specialization that has more and more young people playing a single sport; and “the issue of concussions.”
In November, Pop Warner’s chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon who has worked with the Steelers, was more definitive. He told ESPN’s Outside The Lines that fear of head injuries was the “No. 1” reason for the decline in participation.
All of which leads to an interesting conclusion: Ultimately, Cuban may be right—but that might be the whole point. Saturating the airwaves with NFL games on Sunday in the early afternoon, late afternoon, and evening—with perhaps an occasional late-night game on the West Coast, as happened last year, popping up—as well as Monday night games (occasionally both early and late night here, too, as happens in the first week of each season), Thursday night games, and late-season Saturday night games (which the league plans to reinstate for the 2014 season), as well as a proposed expanded playoff schedule that would add four extra games a year to the post-season (probably on Monday nights), could leave Americans exhausted with football.
But if the league only has another decade or so of being viable before the talent pool dries up and the pending (and inevitable to continue) lawsuits from former players mean that by 2025 it’ll be on its way to being boxing or horse racing—once widely beloved sports that now draw their audience from a shrinking pool of anachronistic adherents—then maybe all the NFL is adopting a scorched-earth policy of oversaturation in order to get while the getting’s good.
Right now, the fact is that Americans have an insatiable appetite for football. Whether or not that appetite will only grow—as, unbelievably, it’s continued to do with every passing season—or eventually reach a tipping point is probably beside the point when one considers the reasons why the game’s future is questionable. In the meantime, Cuban’s noticing the right trend—the NFL is cashing in right now without much regard for whether or not the audience will be as robust in a decade—but he seems to be missing the larger point: The NFL may be on its way to the slaughterhouse a decade from now no matter how many games they schedule each week between now and then. At this point, the league may well just be getting while the getting’s good.