In the beginning, the National Football League played its games on Sundays. Over time, the NFL came to own all of the Sundays from September to January.
Since then, the NFL has laid claim to Monday nights, Thursday nights, and some random Saturdays. Empires expand. It’s what they do.
COVID-19 arrived and, at first, threatened to make this NFL season the first one in forever not to be played at all. The league couldn’t trot out scab players as a fix here. Eventually, though, the show went on. It was never exactly a shock to learn that a league that long denied the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy would place its existence and its profits over the safety of its players. This cavalier disregard for player safety was underscored and highlighted by the league’s decision to compel the Denver Broncos to play a regular season game without a quarterback:
On a day when the #Broncos had no QBs available due to COVID-19, QB/WR Kendall Hinton finished 1 of 9 passing for 13 yards with 2 INTs. An unforgettable and forgettable day.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 29, 2020
The pandemic has also forced the league to reschedule games. Tuesday night’s Dallas Cowboys/Baltimore Ravens matchup was originally scheduled to be played on the previous Thursday. That reschedule was caused by the virus outbreak that led to the Ravens’ game with the Pittsburgh Steelers to be moved from Thanksgiving night to six days later. The game was played on a Wednesday afternoon.
And, perhaps to nobody’s surprise, NFL fans faithfully followed the schedule updates and duly turned on their televisions (or tablets or whatever) to watch the rescheduled games. The ratings for the Ravens/Steelers game — rescheduled three times and played on a Wednesday afternoon, when the West Coast audience was supposedly in the middle of a work day — were quite good. Eleven million, four hundred thousand people cannot all be wrong.
The beat went on with the Cowboys/Ravens game, played on a Tuesday night. Unsurprisingly, more people were watching Fox with an NFL game on than they normally would when, say, Cosmos: Possible Worlds and Next are on.
This phenomenon has been going on since at least October:
TV Ratings: ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Dips to Season Low Against Rescheduled NFL Game https://t.co/aRWU7pUBxU pic.twitter.com/iXv5dnQJAc
— Variety_TV (@Variety_TV) October 6, 2020
Apparently, Cam Newton and the New England Patriots versus Patrick Mahomes and the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs was a bigger draw than finding out whether Nelly could outlast Kaitlyn Bristowe. (Narrator voice: “He didn’t.”)
By now, you probably can guess where this all leads. On current evidence, there is absolutely no reason why the NFL shouldn’t access four or five days of every week in the regular season on a going-forward basis, even when (if?) the pandemic ends and things return to what we knew as normal.
The reasons why the league wouldn’t ultimately do this will not withstand the profit to be made. It is true that the games played by teams on short weeks are often noticeably bad. It is beyond dispute that players are far better off having six or seven days to recuperate from the multiple heavy hits they endure in a game before being asked to play again.
But we have already established that the NFL, for all of its recent commitment to player safety, does not actually care all that much about what will happen to its players as against losing money.
I hear you saying, “yeah, but the NBA and the NHL aren’t playing right now!” Only one of those leagues is relevant to this analysis; the National Hockey League is no threat to the NFL’s dominance. Could National Basketball Association games cut into NFL ratings on, say, Tuesday night? Possibly, but that cuts both ways, because the NFL would unquestionably cut into NBA ratings head to head. Besides, in the world where we live, people are often watching one thing on television and another on a device at the same time.
Rescheduled NFL games played midweek and at unconventional times have drawn ratings. If people knew before the season started that NFL games would be played all through the week, there is no reason to think they would not watch.
Empires expand. It’s what they do.