The National Football League didn't always dominate television sets and merchandise stands in America. Remember: Baseball reigned supreme in the U.S. sports hierarchy until only a few decades ago, and before that boxing was the nation's favorite sport.
NBC Sports Network will be taking an in-depth look at how the NFL has stolen the hearts of American consumers in a four-part series, debuting Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, entitled Star-Spangled Sundays.
NBC has released a preview of the four episode documentary, produced by former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg and NFL Films:
"Episode I: Rise of a Colossus – Tuesday, January 8 at 10 p.m. ET. Deft handling of the new medium of television vaults the National Football League from America’s fourth most popular sport into a cultural and financial titan.
Episode II: Labor Pains – Tuesday, January 15 (Time TBD). NFL players and owners work to create labor peace in the NFL’s $9 billion industry.
Episode III: Brand NFL – Tuesday, January 22 (Time TBD). Riding a cultural and demographic tidal wave, the NFL turns professional football into a year-round, revenue-generating business and has become the most powerful brand in American sports.
Episode IV: Super Sunday – Tuesday, January 29 (Time TBD). The NFL transforms the Super Bowl into the biggest entertainment event on the American calendar."
Television is obviously the key, since the league makes the majority of its revenue from deals with NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN. The NFL had a major advantage over baseball in this area because the schedule makes every Sunday so crucial, so compelling. Throw in prime time and it's no wonder that as TV became more essential to the American lifestyle, football became more prominent. But it looks as though the objective of this series will be to establish that it wasn't just a happy coincidence. The league still had to market itself crisply and take advantage of the opportunity TV presented it. (It'll be interesting to see if the league can stay ahead of the curve now that the internet has begun to leapfrog TV in terms of consumer reach and value, but that's an angle to watch for the future.)
And remember, the NFL has less time to reach you. There are 2,430 regular-season Major League Baseball games per year, while there are only 256 regular-season NFL games. That'll likely be a significant topic in Episode III, when the series looks at how professional football has become a "year-round, revenue-generating business." You've seen the spectacle the NFL draft has become, but 30 years ago it looked like this:
The labor episode isn't quite as compelling as the others, but as the NHL stares down the barrel of another lost season and the NBA recovers from its second work stoppage in just over a decade, it's pretty phenomenal that the NFL has gone more than a quarter century without losing regular-season games to a strike or lockout.
The finale on the Super Bowl is sure to be interesting as well, just because the game is such a massive annual Western tradition. It's kind of weird to consider how far it has come in such a short amount of time. The first Super Bowl wasn't sold out. Now, tickets go for five figures on Craigslist.
Kudos to NBC Sports Network. This appears to be the kind of original programming people will buy into and may be one of the most interesting shows in the network's young history. Of course, that usually applies to anything with the word "football" in the name or abstract.