By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
When the NFL loses John Madden, it’s over. And on the subject of Thursday Night Football, they’ve lost John Madden.
Which means it’s over. Or certainly soon should be.
The NFL’s tumbling television ratings continue to drift downward, and the excuse that Donald J. Trump’s electioneering hi-jinx were just too entertaining for your average football is no longer applicable, even though one of the league’s most powerful owners, Robert Kraft, during a chat this week with the Talk of Fame Network cited it as partly responsible.
A report this week said concern over the slipping ratings may lead to the league canning Thursday Night Football, even though that would cost owners $450 million in revenue from NBC and CBS. But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones quickly took to the Dallas airwaves claiming, “Thursday Night Football is here for good.’’
Let’s hope not, for the good of football.
“It’s a great opportunity for the NFL to basically be a part of what we want to be,’’ Jones said referring to pro football in prime time. “That is, we appreciate the interest that is in our game. I was reading in the Wall Street Journal about how your television ratings are down, but the number-one product in all of television is the NFL. And it’s across the board.
“So all ratings are down, and the NFL is (still) the strongest programming out there. I don’t anticipate anything happening to Thursday Night Football.”
What Jones was saying was something Kraft reiterated to the Talk of Fame Network, which is that pro football remains the leader in its time slots. But Kraft added a cautionary note that illustrates why he has become both the leader of the game’s winningest organization and a league power broker. He has foresight as well as hindsight.
“We’re very sensitive to (over) saturation,’’ Kraft admitted. “We’re still beating all other programming (in their timeslots Sunday, Monday night and Thursday night), but it is something we have to look at.’’
That is obvious both by the continuing ratings slide and the comments of Madden, who dedicated his life to pro football and has done as much to promote it as anyone in the sport with the Madden game and his years as a color analyst after retiring from coaching.
So it should carry some weight when he spoke as he did this week during a podcast in the Bay Area.
“Something has to be done about Thursday Night Football,” Madden said. “It just doesn’t work. It’s not only a fan thing, it’s a team thing. It’s a safety thing. It’s a competitive thing. It doesn’t work. I know about money, and I know about business. Maybe you have to tweak stuff a little more.’’
Part of Madden’s problem with it is that he feels it’s unfair to players and teams. As players grow older, he believes, it takes longer to recover, and the short turnaround between a Sunday game and playing on Thursday adversely affects performance, producing sloppy or uninspired play that is not prime-time entertainment. The fear is that the poor quality and match-ups in many of those games have become a drag on the rest of the week’s programing.
ESPN’s “Monday Night Football’’ ratings have been down all year and continued to slide even two weeks after the election. Despite paying $1.9 billion a year for the broadcast rights, ESPN has seen ratings drop 17 percent this year. They are not alone.
NBC’s Sunday Night Football is down 14 percent for the year. Even last Sunday’s compelling match-up between the defending Super Bowl-champion Denver Broncos and AFC West rival Kansas City Chiefs was down 37 percent from the Sunday night game a year ago.
To be fair, that 2015 match-up was between the Broncos and the then-defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, and it landed an outlier of a Sunday-night rating of 16.2. But if you go back two years, to a Week 12 game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, it was still a 16 percent drop.
A Wall Street Journal story this week said that owners already decided to can the 9:30 a.m. ET start for games broadcast from England next year, pushing them back to a 1 p.m. kickoff even though it means losing the prime time slot in Asia, a market the league is desperate to penetrate. That will reduce the broadcast hours of live Sunday games by three hours, a concession to the fear that overexposure of Sunday games yields deleterious ratings.
Will Thursday night be the next time slot to go dark? Jones says no. Kraft says we’ll see, which was really a qualified ‘’maybe so.’’
But it was John Madden who reflected the reality, and it is this: America loves pro footbal,l but as the poet Kahlil Gibran once cautioned about love in “The Prophet”: “But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.’’
In other words, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. That’s a lesson often learned the hard way, as the NFL seems to be doing this season.