Inside Slant: Mark Cuban is wrong (for now)
March, 24, 2014
By Kevin Seifert | ESPNDallas.com
Seven months ago, I would have been right there with Mark Cuban. I would have been ready to high-five the owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, who on Sunday night predicted the NFL "is 10 years away from implosion" thanks to its slow creep toward a daily game schedule.
The conclusion seemed reasonable in Week 2 of the 2013 season, specifically after a brutal Thursday night game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets. The contest featured four Jets turnovers, 40 incomplete passes and 20 punts. The season's first game on three days' rest was a total dud, and I set out to document what I figured would be a season-long discrepancy between quality of play on Thursday night -- as best as it could be measured -- and games on Sunday or Monday.
As it turned out, the numbers evened out over the course of the season. Our visual and anecdotal impressions might have told us one thing, but the job of documenting poor play on Thursday nights proved difficult. Ratings for those games set an NFL Network record, and the league sold a portion of its 2014 broadcast rights to CBS for about $275 million, according to the Sports Business Journal. The package includes 14 Thursday night games and a Saturday doubleheader in Week 16.
The study was by no means perfect, of course, but a different outcome probably would have pushed me to support Cuban's theory. Speaking to reporters in Dallas, Cuban suggested that the NFL was on its way to oversaturating the market. "They're trying to take over every night of TV," he said. "It's all football. At some point, the people get sick of it."
I'm not sure that's true. Ubiquitous football won't turn fans off on its own. There is an undeniable weekly rhythm to a football season, but as long as most games are played on Sunday, it's difficult to see a widespread revolt.
Here's what will send people looking elsewhere: Ubiquitous bad football. If the inconsistent and/or short rest involved in playing on days other than Sunday diminishes the standard NFL quality of play, then the league will in fact have overextended.
At the moment, there is no obvious data to suggest that Thursday night games are played more poorly than those on Sunday or Monday. Saturday games have a long and largely unchallenged history in the NFL as well. Cuban's comments seem driven more by industry competitiveness than a documented trend.
Cuban is right in a business sense. Greed can lead to overextension and failure, but if there is evidence that the NFL has overextended itself by adding its Thursday night schedule, I haven't seen it. Players, of course, don't like it. Via Twitter, Green Bay Packers guard Josh Sitton compared it to "getting in a car wreck Sunday then getting hit by a train Thursday" -- but once again the available data doesn't suggest any major deviation. According to a league study released in January, injury rates have actually been lower on Thursday nights compared to Sunday and Monday games in each of the past three seasons.
Cuban might well have a visionary window into a future result that we can't project based on current information. But for the moment, his suggestion that the NFL is on a path to implode seems more like wishful thinking than anything else.