SportsBiz: Compared to What?

If you’re following along, in skidding by 9.7 percent, the NFL actually out-performed television in general last year

Two questions, applied liberally, have helped me ply my trade (or at least fake my way through) as a business journalist.

The first is:

“Compared to what?”

It’s a context-revealing question. Imagine your cousin skids into the room to breathlessly announce her best-friend-from-college’s-roommate’s-fiancé has gotten called up by the St. Louis Cardinals and is hitting .210 for the month of May with an on-base percentage of .307!

“Zowie!” you say, feigning interest. Truth is, you don’t know a thing about baseball. But she’s your cousin, so you play along, duly impressed.

Except: “Compared to what?” A click or two around MLB.com tells you the median batting average among position players for the Cardinals as of June 1 was .242, and the average OBP was .318. So a bit of quick “compared to what”-ness tells you your cousin’s friend’s soulmate may have cracked the majors, but unless he steps it up, he won’t stay long.

The “compared to what” query comes in handy for evaluating a common theme tied to last year’s NFL season, when some fans were angered as a small fraction of players kneeled on the sidelines during the playing of the national anthem while the rest of us stood proudly, caps off, in the stands (unless we were busy buying beers and nachos, because: commerce). It was tempting for some of these individuals to point to declining NFL television ratings as proof positive fans were on their side, willfully abandoning the game.

And it’s true that NFL television ratings were down last season, by a blended average of 9.7 percent year-over-year, per Nielsen. (Or at least, NFL ratings as reported by antiquated measurement methodology were down. Actual audience levels are under-reported because of the inability to accurately capture viewing on tablets, smartphones and internet-connected TV sets. But that’s another story.)

But what if we asked our question?

If we widen our contextual perspective, we discover a telling fact: All television ratings were down. According to the media industry investment research firm MoffettNathanson, the total number of network TV viewers 18-49 (a key NFL demographic) plunged 26 percent year-over-year in last year’s third quarter and 16 percent in the fourth quarter – time periods that mirror the NFL regular season.

Which means, if you’re following along, that in skidding by 9.7 percent, the NFL actually out-performed television in general.

This realization runs contrary to the narrative that the NFL suffered huge damage as millions of fans turned their back. If that was the case, NFL ratings trajectories would have been worse than those for television at large. They were better.

So if you want to argue the NFL is reeling from anthem pushback syndrome, then sure, bring it. But for evidence, you’re going to have to look somewhere other than the national television scene, where the research shows the NFL was in fact the outlier – a better performer – in a declining category.

I promised to share a second helpful query. It’s this:

“Why now?”

Try it out when you want to understand any particular event or moment or changed dynamic. Ask, “Why is this happening now, instead of a year ago? A month ago? Six years ago?”

The dust-up over the ownership future of the Denver Broncos is worthy fodder. Why is it now that stewards of the trust created by ailing owner Pat Bowlen announced publicly that they regard one of the aspirants for ownership, Pat Bowlen’s daughter, Beth Bowlen Wallace, inadequate? Did the former Broncos employee just now become unsuitable? Has she been seen as unworthy by the trust’s three-person committee for a long time? Why, on the eve of training camp, has this become a public squabble?

One easy answer is that Bowlen Wallace triggered the trust’s response by willfully thrusting herself into the picture with her own public statement, forcing President Joe Ellis to respond. But the “why now?” line of thinking invites deeper speculation: What else might have happened that swept this conflict, which seems certain to end up in court, into view? My spidey sense says something else is afoot behind the scenes. Bowlen Wallace knows it and is trying to get in front of it.

When I spoke with Ellis for a ColoradoBiz profile two summers ago, he seemed completely at ease in following the scripted procedure Pat Bowlen designated for deciding on a successor. But something has changed since then. Maybe somebody whose last name isn’t Bowlen is angling to figure out a way to gain ownership control of the team. Maybe Bowlen Wallace is hip to that fact. And maybe that’s the answer to “Why now?”

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