The King of Sports

That is the title of Gregg Easterbrook’s recent book about football in America. No one doubts this – football has become America’s runaway favorite sporting diversion, the focus of what is now a non-stop year round news cycle. Colin Cowherd recently outlined how football drives sports media coverage. He said that except for some brief blips – college basketball during a chunk of March, for instance – it’s almost uniformly the case that football is *the* topic on sports talk, the thing that hosts have to keep coming back to if they want to maintain their own ratings. Even the release of the NFL schedule in April for the upcoming season leads to ratings spike. No other sport in America can hold a candle to pro football in terms of popularity.

This morning, Darren Rovell had a write-up for ESPN about the most recent Harris poll about Americans’ favorite sport. Harris has been asking about this since 1985 and for the 30th straight year (including the 2014 survey), the answer is the NFL. In 1985, 24% of Americans said football was their favorite sport and 23% picked baseball. This year, 35% chose pro football, whereas only 14% preferred baseball (college football, a separate option, was the favorite of 11% of respondents. NASCAR is fourth, at 7%, with the NBA next at 6%). The popularity gap, by this as by other measures, is wider than ever.

That domination is most clear in television ratings. Last year, forty six of the top fifty rated sports broadcasts were NFL games. (and football dominates *all* television ratings, sports and non-sports). Only the Louisville-Michigan national championship in men’s collegiate basketball, Games six and seven of the NBA finals and the BCS college football title game, cracked that list of fifty. The BCS title tilt  between Notre Dame and Alabama (two marquee programs) was the highest rated non-NFL show, and finished 27th on the list behind sixteen *regular* season NFL games. The final game of the 2013 World Series, between the Red Sox and the Cardinals, was the fifth most-watched non NFL program, finishing just outside the top fifty over all.

Much of the coverage of the overwhelming popularity of the NFL is also an exercise in pity or schadenfreude or contempt for Major League Baseball. The National Pastime was knocked off its perch as the crown jewel of American sports long ago. Ken Burns’ nine-part, eighteen-hour paean to baseball, which originally aired on PBS in 1994, pegged the moment at which football surpassed baseball as America’s game as far back as the 1960s.

But in the wake of the steroids era, the narrative of baseball’s relative decline has become a truism in sports journalism. But what’s interesting in all this and has largely slipped under the radar is that, in spite of all these decades long trends, when it comes to the bottom line, MLB has never been stronger. The NFL dwarfs MLB in terms of national television contracts. New deals between pro football and its broadcast partners will be in the neighborhood of $40 billion over the next nine years. MLB has also struck lucrative new deals with its national broadcast partners, including ESPN, to the tune of $12.5 billion over the next eight years.

But the real money in baseball, and arguably the most underreported sports business story, is in the local television deals, a revenue stream that simply does not exist in the NFL. The Dodgers have just signed a new agreement worth $6 billion to them alone over the next twenty years. In fact, just four teams – the Dodgers, Phillies, Angels and Rangers – have recently inked new television deals worth a combined $14 billion over the next two decades.  Even the San Diego Padres, still without a World Series championship in the team’s now 45 year history, has signed a TV deal worth over $1billion over the next next two decades.

Overall, according to an analysis done by Fangraphs, MLB franchises take in $2billion or more per year in rights fees from these contracts. And this may understate the real value of these arrangements, especially for teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, which own substantial stakes in the regional sports networks that broadcast their games and are likely low-balling how much they make from baseball telecasts.

In other words, just in the next decade, MLB should take in roughly $30 billion in television revenue from its national and local contracts combined. That’s not too shabby for a league regarded as playing a distant and declining second to the NFL. Major league baseball teams also play 162 games a year. In 2013, roughly 75 million fans showed up to watch those games, or 2.5 million fans per team. That’s five times what NFL teams draw. Add it all up and baseball is making an estimated $8 billion a year, compared to the roughly $9 billion the NFL is taking in. And while baseball is dealing with ongoing headaches related to use of banned substances by its athletes, when accounting for the serious health and legal issues confronting the NFL, MLB faces an arguably far less perilous and murky future than does the NFL.

Just something to keep in mind the next time you hear a discussion of how much football is kicking baseball’s (and every other sport’s) tuchus.

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