In the NFL, teams share revenue from national television contracts and to sell local tickets, if a team has not sold at least to a specific threshold, the game is blacked out locally. If enough people are attending, the game is shown to fans in the region
That appeals to 'hometown' fans. One satellite network shows all games to its package subscribers but otherwise fans are only going to see their local team. If they don't have one, they see something nearby. It is a rule and there is no choice.
In the modern mobile population, that may not be a wise strategy. Fans no longer live within an hour of where they grew up and a new paper finds that choosing to broadcast the local team isn't always the smartest ratings decision. Writing in
the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, the authors contend that television executives should decide which games to air when the home-town team isn't playing - not the NFL.
The study was by Brigham Young University and the Fox affiliate in Salt Lake City. Utah doesn't have their own team and traditionally the most popular teams in Utah have been the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers.
"When you look at the difference between the average team effect, like say the Miami Dolphins, and the next top tier after the Denver Broncos, the results are small, practically insignificant," said Grimshaw. "We went in thinking that we would find the next big team, but really we found no difference."
Grimshaw and Scott J. Burwell of Fox 13 in Salt Lake City say their model predicts within a local market which matchups would generate the largest TV audience.
Based on actual ratings data, the analysis shows that fans don't just watch their favorite team - they also hop on the bandwagon of whoever is winning and lighting up the scoreboard. And when two high-scoring, winning teams play, it's ratings gold.
Looking ahead to the Week 14 games in December, the statistical model Grimshaw built does not favor Fox 13 broadcasting the 49ers game despite their relative popularity in Utah. That's because the Seahawks, last year's Super Bowl champions, face Chip Kelly's fast-paced Eagle's offense during the same time slot. That matchup will draw higher ratings in Utah than the 49ers contest against the winless Raiders.
"One of the intriguing conclusions is that these are a ranking of teams against hypothetical situations," Grimshaw said. "NFL games are the premier local TV program and the station can profit from choosing the right game."
Although he found NFL teams have similar popularity, Grimshaw knows that every sport and league is different. Take college basketball's March Madness, for instance. Grimshaw previously did a study showing that little-known Cinderella teams draw 35% higher ratings than powerhouse schools with national name recognition.
"The Cinderella teams, with all the national media attention they get, become a national star," Grimshaw said. "It's not that these schools have an established national fan base, it's that the NCAA tournament celebrates the Cinderella more so than other sports."