Some surprises on top NFL media exec’s list of stories to watch
TThe NFL’s biggest changes this season are media-related and start inside league offices, where Brian Rolapp is embarking on his first season as the NFL’s top media executive.
Rolapp, executive vice president of media, takes over for Steve Bornstein, an executive whose legacy with the league is defined by the launch of NFL Network and as the architect behind the league’s rights-fee bonanza. Rolapp’s pedigree is based on digital media, and while he already has been effective in negotiating traditional media deals with the likes of CBS and DirecTV, it’s clear that he has a digital media mindset.
Rolapp, with the league since 2003, has been the executive who has pushed the NFL into digital media, overseeing everything from the 2006 move to bring the league’s digital business in-house to this year’s launch of the NFL Now over-the-top service.
I bumped into Rolapp a couple of weeks ago in New York and asked him which media stories he will be following most closely this season. His answers surprised me and provided some insight into the kinds of topics that have traction in the league office.
He brought up “Thursday Night Football” and NFL Now, of course. Both are big initiatives that my colleagues and I are watching this season.
But then Rolapp brought up two stories that would not have made my top-10 list: Playoff expansion and TV ratings.
I considered the NFL’s playoff expansion to be a foregone conclusion. Media executives have told me that they expect the NFL to expand its playoffs by one team per conference — adding one playoff game for each conference — starting next season. The move seems like a no-brainer. ESPN has committed $100 million a year for one wild-card game. Last year, the least-viewed wild-card game (Chiefs-Colts on Saturday) still averaged a whopping 27.6 million viewers.
But Rolapp said the league still hasn’t made a decision on playoff expansion and expects to consider it during the season.
“What we decide with the playoffs is still out there,” he said. “I’m not sure if we will expand them. That’s a big story.”
Rolapp also said he plans to focus on the league’s TV ratings, which have been setting records for most of the past decade.
TV ratings are critically important to every sports league. But Rolapp’s focus on them surprised me because the NFL has been such a reliable ratings play, with viewership as healthy as ever.
The NFL has the top-rated broadcast TV series in “Sunday Night Football” and the top-rated cable TV series in “Monday Night Football.”
Last season, Fox and NFL Network set viewership records around NFL games, and CBS posted the second-best audience for the AFC’s TV package in 26 years. NBC and ESPN also saw viewer gains, and the Super Bowl set a viewership record.
Rolapp wants to make sure that those ratings don’t start to drop.
“We’ve had a great run of the NFL breaking through in the media landscape,” he said. “The world is getting more fragmented. It will be interesting to see if we can continue this trend. I think we will. Event programming in general is still breaking through.”
One way the league thinks it can keep TV ratings high is through flex scheduling. This season will be the first time that the league is using a “cross-flex” schedule that allows CBS and Fox to carry games that they previously would not have had.
Right now, several games already have been “cross-flexed,” such as Week 12’s Redskins-49ers, an all-NFC game that will be on CBS. CBS looks like it benefits more than Fox, given the strength of the NFC schedule.
Another story to watch is the continued growth of the Thanksgiving Day games. It wasn’t long ago that the league devoted subpar matchups to Thanksgiving on the premise that people were watching no matter what.
This season, the NFL has three rivalry games on its Thanksgiving schedule: Bears-Lions on CBS, Eagles-Cowboys on Fox and Seahawks-49ers on NBC. It wouldn’t surprise me to see record-setting viewership for the NFL’s Thanksgiving schedule this year, further establishing this as a new national viewing holiday around the NFL.
John Ourand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.