Monday night in front of your television set: "Are you ready," asks Hank Williams Jr., "for some football?" The roar of affirmation goes up from living rooms across America.
ABC already knew the answer, of course. For 25 years, it had the ratings. Hank Williams was just pumping up the armchair crowd.
Less certain is the answer to this season's question - "Are you ready, seven days a week?"
Whether it's through TV programming, advertising or merchandising, the 79th season of the National Football League, which starts tomorrow, will be very hard to miss.
The league last winter signed $17.6 billion worth of television contracts with Fox, CBS, ABC and ESPN, all of them eager to recoup their investment with hundreds of additional hours of football programming. Makers of NFL-licensed merchandise will be actively seeking to better their 1997 estimated gross revenues of $3 billion, and dozens of major corporate sponsors are now using the NFL in more ways than ever in their marketing and advertising.
"We're now looking at only five days between July 27 and the Pro Bowl [in February] without any pro football programming," on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC, all Walt Disney Co.-owned networks, said Chris LaPlaca, ESPN spokesman. "It was eight but we were able to shave that down a bit."
Some marketing experts, however, are wondering if the league has spread itself too thin and become overexposed. The jury also remains out among television industry executives whether ESPN and the other three networks can make a profit from football broadcasts.
But NFL fans appear far from upset with the constant references to football. The NFL now stands as one of the few sure ratings bets on network television. And for the first time in the 25-year history of the league's blackout rule, no NFL city will be denied live TV coverage as every ticket to all 15 games this weekend have sold out. The NFL projects paid attendance for this weekend's games will top 1 million, also a first in league history.
"The NFL remains far and away the No. 1 sports league, and the one most Americans are interested in following," said Michael Lynch, director of event marketing for Visa.
For advertisers, it is no longer enough to simply buy TV commercials during football games. Many companies that have bought air time, such as Visa, Gatorade and Sure, are increasing their involvement with the league by also sponsoring the league's numerous grass-roots efforts, such as a flag football program, and the traveling NFL Experience theme park.…