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Could NFL Pay-Per-View Become the Future of Professional Football?

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Could NFL Pay-Per-View Become the Future of Professional Football?
Al Bello/Getty Images

When the NFL was founded in 1920, the most popular sports in America were baseball and boxing.

Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey was the most famous athlete in America that year, but home run champion Babe Ruth would ultimately surpass Dempsey's fame.

Baseball soon became America’s Pastime, yet the fascination with boxing held on for decades to come.

Gillette-sponsored Friday night fights were among the most watched sports shows of the 1950s.

For almost 20 years starting in the mid-1960s, ABC’s Wide World of Sports would regularly broadcast championship fights. These transmissions were provided free of charge, over the publicly-owned airwaves.

With the rise of cable TV and its subscription model in the 1980s, HBO and Showtime gradually came to dominate boxing on television.

They eventually gave rise to the pay-per-view events that are now the only venue for the sport’s biggest contests. The result: if you want to see the best, you have to pay for the privilege.

Is this where the NFL is headed?

In the last two weeks we have learned that attendance has been going down since 2007 and that the blackout rules will be relaxed.

Fewer people can afford to experience a game in person. At the same time, the incentive for the front offices and the local television stations to buy unpurchased tickets to lift the blackouts has been reduced. 

Commissioner Roger Goodell, game-day revenue is going down, and the decision is to further shrink it?!

Sticking microphones on players and referees and charging the crowd to listen in is your solution? A strictly stopgap gimmick that does nothing but disguise the strategy already in play.

Monday Night Football (MNF) was once free to anyone with a TV and “rabbit ears” antenna.

Declining ratings forced it to migrate from ABC to ESPN, and it is strictly available through basic cable access.

Thursday night games are only shown on the NFL Network, which requires upgrading to the second programming tier of most cable companies.

The NFL Sunday Ticket package allows DirecTV subscribers to watch any game on the schedule they choose.

MNF ratings dropped 10 percent in 2011, but Thursday games had its most watched season ever.

To exploit its main advantage over competing cable companies, DirecTV recently dropped the price on the Sunday Ticket package in the hopes of attracting over a million new subscribers.

Is the lesson here simply, “If you charge for it, they will come”? Just how far can this approach be taken?

If pay-per-view (PPV) is not a frequent topic of discussion between Goodell and his staff, then we all have overestimated their business expertise.

The widely-held beliefthat PPV led to the decline of boxing could be the only thing holding them back from implementing this income stream.

Should some think the popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) presents a more convincing case for PPV, the numbers for UFC events offer inconclusive evidence. MMA has a strong following, but based on these statistics, it may have reached its peak.

Over its history, boxing has suffered from a host of self-inflicted wounds. This has been due to a level of corruption and mismanagement unmatched in any other major sport. Unlike the sweet science, the NFL has a unified power structure and more than enough money to go around. 

In the announcement of the reduced blackout threshold, Eric Grubman, the NFL's executive VP of business operations, said, "The at-home experience has gotten better and cheaper, while the in-stadium experience feels like it hasn't."

If the league decides it must reverse the “cheaper” trend, let us hope it comes up with something more innovative than charging for each and every game.

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