Mark Cuban thinks the NFL is biting off more than it can chew. Speaking with reporters on Sunday evening, then expanding on his initial thoughts in a 1,585-word Facebook post on Monday night, he argued that the league is overextending itself with Thursday Night Football and the return of late-season Saturday games. Cuban compared the NFL to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — which, once it reached phenomenon status in the early 2000s, went from being on once per week to every weeknight and effectively died — and thinks people will get sick of the product if the games aren’t confined to Sundays and Monday nights. “Pigs get fat,” Cuban said. “And they’re getting hoggy. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way.”
The headline here — one apparently big enough to compel Cuban to elaborate at length on some off-the-cuff comments he made to a few basketball writers — is his claim the NFL will implode in 10 years. As ESPN’s Kevin Seifert points out, there are no numbers that back up Cuban’s assertions. Viewership for Thursday Night Football is solid, and it will obviously increase now that eight of the games are going to be on national television. Stats don’t support the notion that TNF games are particularly sloppier or more poorly played than ones on Sundays and Mondays. (Of course, there’s no metric for whether or not you enjoyed a game.) There aren’t any concrete signs the NFL is getting less popular or that putting football on three or four nights a week has been ruinous to their brand. There has to be a saturation point somewhere, but Roger Goodell hasn’t yet located it.
Regardless of whether Cuban is correct about the league’s imminent decline, he’s hitting on something that a not-insignificant amount of NFL fans think: We could do with a little less football.
One of of the great things about the NFL is that it’s convenient to follow. Because by necessity, football teams play only once per week, there’s not the content flood effect produced by something like the NBA’s 82-game schedule. Satellite TV ads might lead us to believe otherwise, but most sports fans have lives that prevent them from sinking into the couch for four hours every night to watch ballgames. I’m a committed basketball nerd, and I still miss out on a lot because of the sheer amount of stuff that happens in the NBA in a given week. The NFL is easier to grasp by dint of there being fewer games. You can settle in each Sunday afternoon and feel like you have a decent handle on the league. In this respect, Cuban’s right: Football is as popular as it is in part because there is not a lot of it.
I don’t watch many Thursday Night Football games. I’m just not at all in the mood for the NFL in the middle of the week. I prefer to settle into football for the majority of a single day, where the games are stacked on top of each other, which means there’s usually something compelling happening for six hours straight. There is something to be said for a sport that you can consume on Sunday, read about on Monday and largely forget about until it returns again the next week. The NFL allows you to have a life outside of it. I assume I’m in the minority in thinking this way, though. If people don’t want TNF, they’re not voting with their remotes.
If we’re to assume the NFL is sinkable, as Cuban suggests, it’s hard to know what will eventually sink it. It could be safety concerns or some unforeseen cultural shift in tastes. (We used to be a baseball nation; we’re now a football nation; we might be into something else in 50 years.) The NFL’s single-minded desire to expand its reach in service of increasingly obscene profits is as good a candidate as any other — greed is a form of stupidity — but there are no there are no indications the public’s appetite for football has been sated. Roger Goodell and company’s hogginess might turn people off, but it’s not yet keeping them from turning the channel.