Let’s take a journey back in time, back to the salad days of NFL Pregame shows. I want to examine the state of the country/football/NFL at the inception of these programs. How did these show capture the audience, and why has the audience abandoned them?
In 1987 Tom Jackson joined Chris Berman on Sunday NFL Countdown and they would set the gold standard for an NFL Pregame show. ESPN grew in popularity along with the NFL, and Countdown was the crown jewel for ESPN for making the NFL audience their audience.
Let’s think briefly how a football fan might consume football in the mid 1990’s. We are pre-internet, pre-fantasy football, (it did exist but not as it does today) pre-digital cable with multiple cable sports networks, NFL Sunday ticket just launched in 1994. So if you want the scoop on the NFL you had to
a) Read a newspaper, USA Today had the best sports section.
b) Subscribe to a magazine like SI.
c) Watch ESPN shows like Countdown and Primetime.
d. Sports AM Radio.
Holy Crap that’s four whole ways for Joe Six-Pack to wet his beak on the NFL. You can see how in this 1990’s Petri dish NFL Pre-Game shows are going to have the most upward trajectory. Magazines and Newpapers require money or a subscription that you had to commit to. AM Radio was decent but felt primitive unless you were driving. People gravitated to Berman and Tom Jackson’s shows because of the content but also due to a glaring lack of alternatives.
It was a glaring lack of alternatives that really helped ESPN build the audience they had and allowed them to dominate. They started to make enough money to not just show NFL Pregame but the NFL itself. Sunday Night Football helped Primetime and Primetime helped Sunday Night Football.
Lack of Alternatives may have brought the viewer in, but it was on air talent and chemistry that kept the viewer watching and coming back. Berman and Tom Jackson were undeniable, they appealed to the kid in me, to my dad’s generation and to my grandfather.
The show was about football. It was not about who was sub tweeting who. It was not about what the guys on the show were wearing. It wasn’t a bunch of recently retired players pretending to like each other and like the host. It felt real. Countdown today feels manufactured in a lab, it’s steril, it’s bland. It doesn’t have a soul. Berman and Tom Jackson genuinely seemed to really like each other. They were knowledgeable about the game but still brought a fan’s enthusiasm and passion to the program. You felt like you could just sit on a bar stool between Berman and Jackson on a Sunday and watch right along with them. Now try to imagine sitting at a bar with Samantha Ponder and talking football. It doesn’t seem real does it? Not because she’s a woman, because this is just another job for her. For Berman and Tom Jackson this was LIFE.
The Internet Marginalized the Pre-Game Show.
This is undeniable, however it also helped support pregame show in one very important regard – Fantasy Football.
So two things happened at around the same time.
- The sheer amount of information on the internet puts the need for news from print and TV in jeopardy. The writing is on the wall, many companies ESPN included go digital, and amass a web presence. The information provided by a show like Countdown becomes less important. Now the audience is choosing to consume you, rather than being forced…you will have to rely on the charisma and personalities of the on air talent more than you did before. ESPN built a following during this time, but the following can now dwindle if the show isn’t great.
- Fantasy football explodes onto the scene. This I believe was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in so far that it gave shows another angle. They could approach from a Fantasy first perspective when discussing players, a valuable time filler for an NFL show. It was a curse because eventually fantasy football would be so popular, it warranted it’s own show. Fantasy information became the dominant preferred football news, show devoted entirely to fantasy could take a HUGE chunk of Countdown viewers.
In the Mid 2000’s and the Petri dish that allowed pre-game to flouish has changed. However so has football’s popularity, fantasy has brought the sport to a new level. Owners are making money hand over fist, ESPN Countdown is still fine. The talent and the NFL’s popularity overcome the loss of people needing to watch, now they want to watch. PTI and Around the Horn emerge and ESPN is spoon feeding the sports fan sports takes. This is where I think ESPN executives started to out think themselves, They needed more people watching to get more shows to attract more viewers. Basic TV stuff right?
ESPN gets more in bed with the NFL, more in bed with other pro sports leagues, but in doing so they lose the ability to be journalists. You don’t just report on the NFL, you report for the NFL at ESPN. They also needed to have “Mass Appeal” and began to cater to fans on the fringe rather than the hardcore base. More puff pieces, more about players overcoming adversity, less about nuances of the zone blocking scheme.
ESPN starts losing talented people that brought you to the network in the first place. Patrick, Obermann, Kilborn, these guys were long gone. Others went too. Berman was the constant until he wasn’t. Not just talented but colorful characters, ex-NFL players and coaches with charisma were let go for guys with a wholesome image. Matt Hasselbeck has the charisma of an ant. Ditka might have been a outspoken conservative off camera, but on camera he was this hilarious caricature of himself and gave you a reason to watch.
“what a long strange trip it’s been” – Berman
At least we still have Berman. Well we did untill 2017-2018 season. Enter Sam Ponder. Really, you think a pretty blond can replace a living legend? Why? I never cared one way or the other about Ponder but I know this, she isn’t funny, she isn’t creative, the show is suffering. Ratings are WAY down. Ponder has made an enemy of an entire sect of sports fans, by getting Barstool Van Talk canceled, an ESPN partnership that sought to recover some of their lost audience. It does not look good for countdown. Even if they could find a “New Berman” the Petri dish has changed and the sports world is fragmented. ESPN will never be able to build in the kind of feel old-Countdown had ever again.
Countdown and other NFL pregame shows are already obsolete, they are still watched out of habit and routine, but that will soon wane. The NFL in general has began to wane. Look for Ponder to be working for a religious network in the next 10 years. Football/ESPN/NFL need to try and appeal to it’s base again not people like my mom, who doesn’t watch anyway. Know your audience, because today we have choices on where to consume football.