What could an NFL lockout mean for the NCAA and TV?

A fight between millionaires and billionaires looks to be the biggest reality-show drama of the summer. With no end in sight for the bitter NFL lockout, fans of what’s arguably America’s most popular sport may have to turn elsewhere to get their football fix this fall.

If the No. 1 choice for football nationally (although not in all regions) isn’t available on television or in person on Sundays, that may leave Saturday’s slate of college football games to fill the void. College football is strong even with the NFL on, though; the 2009 NCAA football season set record-breaking television ratings across a wide variety of channels. While last season’s ratings took a slight drop, they were still above-average compared to previous years.

In 2010, CBS, which holds the rights to the NFL’s American Football Conference, led the way with an average of nearly seven million viewers per week for their broadcasts of Southeastern Conference games.

The SEC is a conference featuring 12 schools in nine states in the geographic southeast of the United States. Its teams are near five NFL markets, but in many cases, they draw more attention than even the local professional teams. It might be a state without professional football where the NCAA shines brightest, though; the SEC accounted for six of the top 10 most-viewed NCAA games of last season, all of which included either the University of Alabama or the Auburn University (in the state of Alabama).

The second highest-rated network was ABC, who averaged 5.5 million viewers per game over 30 telecasts of games from every major conference except the SEC. Rounding out the big three American networks with 3.1 million viewers per week was NBC, home of Notre Dame games. Further games were broadcast everywhere from the ESPN family of networks to FSN‘s regional affiliates to Versus, the Big 10 Network and The Mountain West Network. Television coverage of the NCAA seems to keep increasing, too; both Texas and BYU are forming their own networks, and conferences are raking in more and more in rights fees all the time.

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As football can be one of the biggest ratings draws on television, NCAA games could be attractive alternative programming for networks if there is no NFL season. Some games could potentially move to Sundays, but even if the NCAA sticks with its typical Saturday schedules, network synergy could lead to increased promotion of the college games.

Tom Fornelli of CBS‘ Eye on College Football points to the recent deal FOX Sports and ESPNstruck with the Pac-12 as an example of the new order.

“The Pac-12 got $3 billion from FOX and ESPN for broadcast rights, and those networks-both of whom also have NFL deals-would love filling the NFL void with college football,” Fornelli said.

If the networks are able to draw much of their NFL audience to the college game, that could be massive. College football is huge, but on a national scale, the NFL’s ratings are even more enormous. NBC led the NFL ratings with an average of 21.8 million viewers per week for their marquee Sunday Night Football game, thanks partly to their ability to feature marquee matchups and popular teams and pick precise games they want later in the season. FOX’s coverage of the NFC averaged 20 million viewers, while CBS‘ AFC broadcasts drew an average of 18.7 million viewers. Across the board, each station has been on a steady increase for each of the past three seasons.

A closer look at the ratings shows the most viewed games of the season peaking at over 25 million viewers for the regular season, with the top two matches slightly over 30 million. That will be a lot of homes looking for football in September. However, they may not be able to find a superb local NCAA alternative: the 11 teams that were involved in games that drew over 25 million viewers were Minnesota, New Orleans, Green Bay, Philadelphia, New England, New York Jets, Dallas, Indianapolis, New York Giants, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. Only five of those teams have a direct local NCAA rival that featured in last season’s year-end Top-25 rankings.

A missed NFL season might not only help the NCAA product this year, but for years to come. Other sports have seen viewers abandon a game completely or switch to something else thanks to labour strife. However, Fornelli says the entrenched nature of the NFL market means most extra fans of the college game would only be around until the professional product returned.

“I get the feeling that when the NFL did come back, those who had switched over to college would go right back to the NFL, though a few may carry on watching both.”

To get an idea of how a professional work stoppage can affect amateur leagues, it’s worth considering what happened in hockey. In 2004-05 the National Hockey League’s season-long lockout left players from one of the best NHL drafts in recent history from 2003 (to date, only two players from the 30 drafted in the first round have failed to become full-time NHL players) with another year in the junior and minor league systems. Great players and an absence of the professional product helped boost interest in the junior game on several fronts.

OHL scout Vic Carneiro was with the London Knights during that season, and he saw first-hand what effect the lack of big-league action had on the juniors.

“Given the insatiable appetite Canadians have for hockey, Canadians took a more ‘local’ approach to following hockey that season, especially from the media side of things,” Carneiro said. “The fact that London was also hosting the Memorial Cup that season helped tremendously. And when Rimouski, who were led by one Sidney Crosby, qualified for the tournament, it just intensified the media spotlight. Rogers Sportsnet sent their NHL reporters to the tournament for the week.”

The void of NHL games saw a number of players stay in the juniors a year longer, while some played with their drafted team’s minor-league AHL affiliate and all the top players were able to participate in the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in North Dakota. Carneiro said those championships in particular proved a great showcase for the junior game, thanks to the increased caliber of the competition and the intensified media focus.

“The 2004-05 Canadian World Junior team that was assembled was probably the greatest junior team Canada ever put together and the results were obvious with Canada winning the tournament,” Carneiro said. “With Canada not having won the tournament in seven years, again the media spotlight shone brightly on the Canadian youngsters.”

Increased talent in the amateur game from labor issues doesn’t seem all that likely to happen in the NFL, though. Despite the lockout uncertainty heading into this season, most of the top underclassmen who could have stayed in college another season left the NCAA behind and entered the draft. Fornelli doesn’t believe the lockout was much of an issue for most.

“For the most part, even with the lockout looming this year, most of the game’s top juniors declared for the NFL draft,” he said. “After all, while the players no doubt love playing football in college, the dream for just about every kid playing college football that has a shot at the NFL is to get to the NFL.”

There were a few highly-touted underclassmen that chose to remain in the college ranks for at least another season, though, most notably Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who was projected to be the top overall pick had he declared for the NFL Draft. Consensus All-American wide receiver Ryan Broyles from Oklahoma will be playing on Saturdays next year, as will fellow All-American tight-end Michael Egnew of Missouri. They don’t have a lot to worry about from a career perspective, either, as Fornelli says even a season lost to a lockout shouldn’t hurt the 2012 draft class.

“I don’t think there’s any way in the world either the owners or players would be dumb enough to lose two seasons of the sport.”

If they do lose a season, though, what will it mean for the NFL’s dominant television presence? A common complaint amongst sports fans is something to the extent of “I stopped watching baseball after the (94-95) strike”. To a lesser extent, the same complaint about hockey is prevalent with some former casual fans of the sport. However, Brian Galliford of SB Nation andBuffalo Rumblings doesn’t imagine a work-stoppage would have a lasting effect on the NFL audience. He sees them going elsewhere for a short time, but returning before when the league does.

“I’d expect most Buffalonians to enjoy the fall weather as much as they can and ramp up their college football viewing – whether at UB (the University of Buffalo) or just on the tube – until the Buffalo Sabres started playing hockey in October.”

For small-market teams with their long-term futures in question, a work stoppage might put fragile fanbases in further danger, though. The Jacksonville Jaguars have been rumored to be a contender to relocate for a number of seasons. In 2005, the team installed tarps to cover nearly 9,000 seats to reduce the overall capacity and thus allow games to be shown on local TV, circumventing the blackout restrictions that prevent games from being broadcast locally if not sold out. Despite large success on the field and off the field, the New Orleans Saints have also been discussed as a candidate for relocation, largely thanks to playing in the 40-year-old Louisiana Superdome.

Another interesting case is the Buffalo Bills, the team Galliford covers on a regular basis. When they announced in 2007 they would be playing a number of pre-season and regular season games in nearby Toronto, the rumor mill once again went into full force about a team coming to North America’s second-biggest market without an NFL franchise.

Buffalo isn’t the largest market, and a substantial loss of fans or sponsors could make things very difficult for them. However, Galliford thinks the Bills will remain local even if there is a season-long work stoppage.

“The Bills will also always have corporate sponsors as long as they’re in Buffalo,” he said. Their sponsors are locked in for now, and they’ll come back when football is back, no matter how long it’s been out.”

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