To Do: Five Improvements for the AFL and NBC
The news did come as a shock to some extent, considering the ratings have not taken off as most would have hoped. To the AFL, this level of viewership is incredible compared to the rest of its history. To NBC, the ratings most weeks have been borderline embarrassing. To their credit though, NBC seems to have seen the potential in the sport, and decided to give it another few years to solidify. As has been said before, you cannot grow a league into national prominence in only a year or two. It will probably take 5 to 10 years to really see growth into a significant factor in the sports landscape.
There are some things though that need to happen for the NBC/AFL partnership to truly be beneficial to all sides: NBC, AFL, and most importantly, the fans.
1. Pick a consistent starting time, and stay with it
In a previous article on ArenaFan it was pointed out that when the starting time changed for the AFL games, viewership went down .3 rating points almost every time. When the starting time doesn’t change, viewership remains steady. This doesn’t mean that the league probably wouldn’t lose viewers anyway because of the competition from NCAA playoff games, NASCAR and baseball. It might not dip so low though, if potential fans wouldn’t have to try to follow it around. TV viewers, on a large scale, are creatures of habit, and just like shows that networks move around in prime time that can’t hold an audience, the same will happen with a weekly sporting event like the AFL as well.
Considering the requirements NBC has, mainly moving the AFL around for their golf coverage, the most likely place to find a consistent spot for AFL coverage would be noon eastern. While this makes for a poor time for west coast viewers (9:00 a.m.), the ratings have proven to be better earlier, with no competition from NASCAR, NBA playoffs and afternoon baseball games on local station. In addition, this time wouldn’t have to change all season long. Whether NBC decides to do this on Saturday or Sunday, it would work either way. They could also solve the west coast problem by always having a west coast game at 3:00 p.m. Pacific time (which would be after any NBC golf coverage, which would be done by 3:00 p.m. Pacific time). As long as each time zone has a specific time that doesn’t change from week to week, the ratings should hold better than they have.
2. Only schedule games that will be shown by NBC for the time slot
The biggest complaint this year from many fans has been when their team was supposed to be seen on NBC, and then gets dropped from the coverage. This not only irritates long time fans, it also doesn’t allow the teams to set up local coverage arrangements in time, since they would lose too many fans at the games by the last minute time change. Obviously, NBC wants the best matchups each week, but, they and the league need to make these decisions at least three to four weeks ahead of time, so teams can move the games to a better starting time, and possibly get alternative coverage.
3. Either get national secondary cable coverage, or get teams to stop being cheap
A potential way of getting more promotion to the NBC games would be more games on TV on cable, which would promote the AFL games on NBC, much like TNT and ESPN promote the NBA games on ABC. So far, this has not happened on a national level. There has been some talk of a Friday or Saturday night cable slot, most likely on Fox Sports Net, or possibly USA since NBC now owns that outlet. Whichever way it would go, it would provide an excellent opportunity to showcase more games, and promote the NBC telecasts.
If the league isn’t able to do that, then they at least need to push teams to not just take whatever coverage NBC gives them, and leave it at that. Too many teams have taken the attitude of “Since my team gets enough coverage by NBC, we won’t make an effort to get any of our other games on local TV.” That won’t grow the league in their home markets. Fans want to see their team on TV, especially on the road.
Obviously, the league and NBC need to not take so many games away from the team that they don’t have enough games to make a package to a local carrier. Another potential way the league could help with this would be to get a bit more money from the national advertisers for their sponsorships, with the addition of putting their ads on the local TV broadcasts, and giving some of that cash to the local teams for doing so. This will help the teams sell the advertising needed to produce the games.
4. NBC needs to do more in cross promoting the league
NBC has done an above average job in ‘traditionally” promoting the league on its network. They have put AFL ads on during some of their most popular shows. They have put AFL logos in the corner of the screen as shows have begun. They have promoted the AFL during their other sporting events.
What NBC needs to do more of though is less traditional promotions, and start thinking “outside the box”. They have many ways they could be reaching potential fans via their network. They have a highly rated reality show, Fear Factor, which could easily do an episode with some of the AFL’s attractive cheerleaders and players. They could have there number one rated late night duo, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, have some AFL related guests, or do on location things at the Avengers or Dragons games. They could have AFL players host the NBC Saturday morning programs. They could somehow have the Las Vegas Gladiators figure into an episode of “Las Vegas”.
The opportunities are there, and they don’t take away any level of respectability to the given programming to have the AFL connection. NBC has to just be willing to pursue them.
5. “Enhance” the broadcasts overall
NBC has played around with the broadcasts, much of it with suggestions from the fans. They have had no pregame show, then added a pregame show, then taken it away. The issue of course is that they only show a postgame wrap-up if there is time left, unlike other sports where they will take the 5-10 minutes to do a postgame no matter what. I don’t know that it can be expected them to show much AFL past the three-hour window they give it, given the current ratings, so, that is to be expected. As least the NFL took the heat 30 years ago and there will definitely be no “Heidi” AFL games on NBC.
In my opinion, the best balance would be a short two-minute “whip around” before each game, moderated by Al Trautwig in the studio, with 20-30 second summaries of each match-up by the lead announcers at each game, and then Al sending you out to your game coverage. The half time coverage has been great, as has the postgame when they do have the time to do it. Hopefully, over the next two seasons, NBC will lessen the chatter during the halftime—and during game play—of things like NASCAR and horse racing. I doubt that those two sports sit and discuss the AFL for two or three minutes during their coverage. Give the AFL equal respect.
With the above changes and improvements, and with the potential of more large markets coming into the league in 2005 because of the NBC renewal, the AFL might just truly see its “breakout” season next year.
Dave Carlson is the Technical Director of Arenafan Online. Dave graduated with a degree in Computer Information Systems, and has been a member of the Arena Football Internet community since 1991. He is currently a professional web programmer, and has a history in programming sports statistics. Dave is married and lives in Indiana.