NFL fans motivated by familiarity, uncertainty, study finds

Scott Tainsky, a professor of recreation, sport and tourism, has explored the fa

Scott Tainsky, a professor of recreation, sport and tourism, has explored the factors that influence television viewership in cities without NFL franchises.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - With the bitter contract dispute between the National Football League Players Association and team owners apparently inching toward the goal line, armchair quarterbacks - and television broadcast executives - across the U.S. can breathe a collective sigh of relief that their favorite teams probably will kick off the 2011 season as expected and won’t leave them with gaping holes in their schedules come fall.

While deciding which games to broadcast may be no-brainers for networks and their affiliates that have NFL teams in their markets, the selection process is more complicated everywhere else.

More than half of U.S. residents don’t have NFL teams in their television market and deciding which games to telecast is crucial when there are potentially millions of viewers and billions of advertising dollars at stake.

“If you live in Chicago, sure, you’re most likely to be a fan of the Chicago Bears,” says Scott Tainsky, a professor of recreation, sport and tourism in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. “But what about people in cities such as Orlando? Are they Jacksonville Jaguar fans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans or Miami Dolphins fans?”

Tainsky co-wrote a recent study with Chad D. McEvoy, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Recreation at Illinois State University, which explored the factors that influence television viewership in cities without NFL franchises. The study appears in the Journal of Sports Economics, published online May 2.

The NFL reaps more than $3.7 billion annually - more than half its revenue - by selling broadcast rights to CBS, ESPN, FOX and NBC. That’s more than $116 million each year in national TV revenue for every NFL franchise - more than four times the revenue generated by the National Basketball Association or Major League Baseball.

“The popularity and success of the NFL are such that the league’s television contract provides its member teams a stable financial base before ever selling a single ticket, hot dog or licensed sweatshirt,” Tainsky and McEvoy wrote.

 With more than half of fans living in markets without NFL franchises, broadcasting games that appeal to the largest numbers of TV viewers is critical for networks and their affiliates, Tainsky said. Making a wrong choice can drive down viewership and advertising revenue, starting a ripple effect that costs the teams and, ultimately, the NFL.

During a typical football season, 14 pro games are played every Sunday afternoon.

Tainsky and McEvoy reviewed summary statistics from the Nielsen Co. for the 2006 and 2007 NFL seasons, which included all Sunday afternoon games broadcast on CBS and FOX in the 12 largest markets without NFL franchises.

Nielsen ratings points vary by the population in each market, so one point can equate to 56,000 people in a large market such as Los Angeles - or 13,000 people in a market the size of Orlando, Tainsky said. “Differences of three or four points are a lot to network executives when the average telecast in markets without teams is just over nine (points).”

Familiarity was particularly important to TV viewers without NFL teams in their markets, who tended to adopt the closest team to them geographically as their primary team. If one of the teams playing in a broadcast game was the closest team geographically, TV viewership increased by 2.48 points, the study indicated.

Likewise, viewers also favored teams that had been around for a while over newly established teams.

The researchers also found that while TV viewers were attracted to games featuring high-quality teams, they also craved excitement and uncertainty, favoring games where the teams were evenly matched and the outcomes were unpredictable.

“Without match uncertainty, sports loses something,” Tainsky said. “It’s fun to watch the New York Yankees beat on the Kansas City Royals, but you won’t watch that 162 times a year. Even if you’re a Yankee fan that will get boring at some point.”

However, certain teams drew more viewers regardless of the teams’ records. The New Orleans Saints and the Dallas Cowboys, for example, attracted larger audiences than their quality would have predicted, the researchers wrote.

“People are not interested in only viewing the best game available or the game that features the two closest relatively matched teams,” Tainsky said. “There is some sort of allegiance among fans even if the name of their adopted team doesn’t represent their city.”

Consistent with a study that Tainsky published in 2010, games broadcast during the latter half of the season garnered more viewers, especially during the final quarter of the season. Tainsky’s prior study also indicated that games played Thanksgiving week through the end of the season tended to draw larger audiences.

Having a readily available substitute - a game broadcast simultaneously on another network - decreased ratings by more than 3.4 percent, the study indicated.
Most prior sports studies concentrated on the fans that bought tickets and filled the seats at the stadiums, rather than TV viewers.

 “This particular study looks at those fans who could never be measured by attendance-based studies,” Tainsky said. “It gives them a voice in what makes games popular. If league administrators, teams and networks were only interested in selling tickets, these fans wouldn’t be on their radar.

“We hope that TV executives are incorporating all of this data - geography, the evenness of matches - in a scientific way into their broadcast decisions and are not just picking games to air based on hunches, that they’re selecting the games optimally to please the most fans,” Tainsky said.

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