World Series and NBA could mean another hit to NFL's reputation as TV's champs

Twitter: A whole new way to watch the NFL
Twitter: A whole new way to watch the NFL

This week the NBA tipped off its new season with the biggest athlete in the world getting his third championship ring. On the same night, Major League Baseball had game 1 of the World Series between two teams that haven't won a title in a combined 174 years. And the NFL's big game of the week? Well, it ended in a 6-6 tie.

For years, the NFL has dominated TV from September to February, bringing in the biggest ratings of anything on the air and helping the networks launch all their other shows.

The NFL's numbers were so reliably great that it seemed like the league could broadcast anything and find an audience, no matter how conceptually ridiculous the idea was. Meaningless preseason games? Fantastic! Announce a series of names for four days straight? Great! Put a bunch of no-name rookies in shorts and have them run a 40-yard dash? Why not!?

But this year has damaged the NFL's image as TV's last bulletproof broadcast. Ratings have dropped, fans aren't tuning into the boring match ups in each week's marquee games and all anyone who watches the industry can talk about is what's happening and why.

And now the MLB and NBA are coming to make things worse, delivering some of their best offerings of the year as the NFL struggles.

The NBA ended last season on a high note, with its biggest Finals since 1998. That good will seems to have carried over to this season. Viewership for the league's opening night doubleheader on TNT this week was up 10% over last year. (TNT, like CNN, is owned by Time Warner (TWX).)

Yes, the roughly 3 million average viewers that watched NBA coverage Tuesday night is a tiny number compared to the NFL, but it's still significant that the NBA is growing its audience at a time when the NFL is seeing declining viewership.

Baseball, on the other hand, has a real chance to beat the NFL in a head-to-head ratings match up this weekend. The two teams in the World Series, the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians, aren't the biggest names, but with the team's long suffering fanbases and underdog storylines -- the Indians inspired "Major League," whose plot involves them being so bad that they're accidentally good, while the Cubs got "Rookie of the Year," in which the thing that saves them is a 12-year-old with a magical injury -- make it hard for even the most casual fan not to tune in.

That may be why game 1 of the World Series saw its biggest numbers since 2009 with 19.4 million viewers -- a number that even beat the audience of NBC's "Sunday Night Football" this week. And that doesn't seem to be a one hit wonder either; game 2 on Wednesday brought in 17.4 million viewers.

world series cubs indians
Can Major League Baseball beat the NFL in ratings? We'll see Sunday night.

Related: World Series scores biggest game 1 audience since 2009

It might seem unfair to compare the championship of one league to the regular season game of another, but not with the NFL. That's how dominant the NFL has been.

Just last year, game 1 between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals nabbed a little under 15 million viewers, which was five million less than the Sunday night game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers that same week.

Now, what the NFL is going through this season could all be just a fluke, and it could be back to being TV Teflon next season. Brian Hughes, a senior vice president at Magna, which monitors audience trends, believes the MLB and NBA being seen as competitors to the NFL may even end up being good for everyone in the long run.

"I doubt competition from other sports will impact the perception of the NFL. If anything, it's good for live TV in general," Hughes said. "If something is going to impact rights fees negotiations down the line, it will be continued shifts in viewership and the widening gap between what the networks are paying and what they can make back in ad revenue."

We'll be able to see if MLB can actually compete directly against the NFL when game 5 of the World Series goes up against "Sunday Night Football."

With the 5-1 Dallas Cowboys taking on the 4-2 Philadelphia Eagles, it'd most likely take a shot for the Cubs to clinch the Series to stop the NFL from winning the night. But the fact that we're even having the conversation says a lot about where the NFL is right now.


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