Imagine fall Sunday afternoons without the NFL. No tailgate parties, no televisions to shout at, no games whatsoever. Nothing. Now imagine you're an executive for a television company that had just agreed to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars for broadcast rights to a league that has no games to show. You've got hours and hours of programming time and commercial ad space to fill. Yet you're stuck with all that nothing. What do you do?
This was not just a ridiculous hypothetical scenario. In 1982, two weeks into the NFL season, the players went on strike. Poof. Just like that. No football. The players demanded a greater share of the owners' growing revenues, but they also sought free agency, pensions, severance pay. And on Sept. 20, moments after the Packers beat the Giants on Monday Night Football, the players hit the picket line. Their strike would last 57 days and devour eight weeks of games. The move cost the NFL an estimated $275 million. And in a bizarre postscript, an abbreviated nine-game schedule led the league to allow 16 of its then-28 teams to qualify for the playoffs.
During the strike, NBC and CBS had to do something about that giant hole in their Sunday afternoon programming schedules. Then, as now, the NFL was a cash cow that delivered huge ratings. "It's an insatiable audience," veteran play-by-play voice Don Criqui told me over the phone. "Management was looking for football." And the executives at NBC, which at the time carried AFC games on Sunday afternoons, hit upon an unconventional idea: Why not replace the void left by the NFL with live telecasts of the Canadian Football League?
"We were trying to fill that gap," Dick Enberg, NBC's lead NFL play-by-play man in those days, said in a phone interview.
To put it another way, executives believed that fans would tune in to anything, as long as it was football. Mike Weisman, who's worked for 40 years in sports television, was at the time NBC's coordinating producer of baseball and would later become the executive producer for all of NBC Sports. Though he wasn't involved in the decision to show the CFL, Weisman summed up the network's general line of thought this way:
"Football is king, and if you do football, people will watch."
That was true only up to a point, as NBC would soon discover.
In 1982, the CFL already had a broadcast partner beaming its games to U.S. television audiences: ESPN. The sports cable network was still learning to crawl, and in those days it wasn't uncommon to turn on ESPN—at any time of day—and find sub-tertiary programming of all sorts, from Australian Rules Football to strongman competitions. The CFL, which is essentially American football with some peculiar rules variations, was a perfect fit for ESPN's eclectic lineup.
Through the summer of '82, it was well understood that the NFL players would be going on strike soon after the season began. But NBC's negotiations with ESPN—the network did not cut a deal directly with the CFL—more or less took place at the last minute. "We made a relatively quick deal," said a retired NBC Sports executive familiar with the network's decision-making process who spoke to me on condition of anonymity.
It was relatively easy for NBC to acquire the rights to a handful of CFL games from ESPN. ESPN's only condition was keeping the rights to the Grey Cup, the CFL's championship game.
The CFL, for its part, was more than happy with its end of the bargain. This was how CFL Illustrated described the league's brief partnership with NBC a year later:
The decision to carry CFL games on U.S. networks was greeted enthusiastically by both the CFL and by the network. [CFL commissioner Jake] Gaudaur has always felt that U.S. exposure is essential in helping the CFL recruit players. While the all-sports ESPN network has been carrying the game for two seasons and had built a respectable following, the NBC coverage promised to bring the Canadian game into more U.S. homes than ever before. As for the networks they were only happy to pick up the only real professional football being played in North America at the time. The fact they were picking it up for a bargain $50,000 a game made it even more attractive.
CBS, which was then home to the NFC's Sunday afternoon games, chose to air a replay of the previous year's Super Bowl one week, and a handful of Division III college games in another, thereby fulfilling a four-game contractual obligation with the NCAA in one fell swoop. (And, yes, Pat Summerall and John Madden, left with nothing better to do, even did a D-III game. For the record, Baldwin-Wallace defeated Wittenberg 16-14 on Sunday, Oct. 3, 1982.)
But NBC saw a chance to broadcast live, professional, first-rate football, and was sure it had a winner in the CFL.
"It's a terrific game," the retired NBC executive told me. "We had some numbers on it, and most of the games were close."
NBC went all-in on its CFL investment. The network sent its top announcing and production crews north of the border. The goal was to present viewers with an experience similar to what they'd come to expect.
"At least in my case, I approached those games the same way I'd approach a normal NFL game or the Super Bowl," said Enberg, who was twice sent to Edmonton with the late Merlin Olsen, his longtime broadcast partner. "Basically, once you get into a game, it's a game. You try to do the best you can in personalizing the players and telling the story of the game and reporting the ball, as they say."
Enberg grew up in Detroit, and Criqui is from Buffalo, so both announcers consumed the CFL at a young age and were familiar with the game and its idiosyncratic rules: three downs, the single point (or rouge) on touchbacks, the wider field and longer end zones, the unlimited motion before the snap.
"Red zone offenses were running fly patterns!" Criqui said, referring to the CFL's 20-yard end zones, which in those days still measured 25 yards.
On that first non-NFL Sunday, Criqui and John Brodie went to Toronto to do the B.C. Lions at the Argonauts in the early game, while Enberg and Olsen worked the Calgary Stampeders-Edmonton Eskimos game in the late afternoon. The Eskimos were a CFL dynasty, on their way to their fifth consecutive Grey Cup title. And the game would be the first opportunity for a U.S. network television audience to get a glimpse of the Eskimos' sensational quarterback: future Hall of Famer Warren Moon, who that year would become the first professional QB in history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season.
Ratings from that time are hard to come by, but the CBC once reported that on that first Sunday, NBC's CFL presentation beat both CBS's Super Bowl re-broadcast and an Orioles-Brewers game that was shown on ABC. But everyone I interviewed for this story agreed that NBC's CFL experiment was doomed for one reason: Every game the network showed was a blowout. After B.C. torched Toronto and Edmonton thrashed Calgary by a combined 51 points, NBC decided to show just one game the following week: The Saskatchewan Roughriders thumping Calgary 53-8. It was a drilling so thorough NBC cut away in the middle of the fourth quarter to show its regularly scheduled evening programming.
People who worked in television in those days called a blowout a "husky," which was another way of saying it was a dog because it was bad for ratings. Every person I talked to about the NBC-CFL partnership in '82 uttered the word "huskies" almost as soon as our conversations began.
"The games we got were all horrible," the retired NBC executive said. "It was frustrating. It was terrible. We wound up showing a series of uncompetitive games, which is what killed us."
"People didn't know the players, didn't know the game," Criqui said. "The CFL had very little identity for an American audience. And it's hard to build a following and build an audience when a team is ahead by four touchdowns at halftime."
"Unfortunately for the image of the CFL, it was a chance to sell Canadian football to the American public, and the product was just so lopsided the games weren't interesting," Enberg said.
NBC went back to the well one more time on Oct. 10, but after the Eskimos pounded the Lions 30-1, it decided to pull the plug on a planned broadcast of Toronto versus the Winnipeg Blue Bombers slated for the following week. The World Series had begun on Oct. 12, and NBC had the rights. By that point, the network felt it was better not to air the CFL than run the risk of a game going long and conflicting with baseball.
Enberg said the "highlight of it all" was meeting Wayne Gretzky during his time in Edmonton. He also said the weeks that followed—after NBC stopped showing the CFL, but before the strike ended—allowed him to move from Los Angeles to New York, around which time he met his current wife of 30 years.
"I look back on it as a pleasant memory," he said. "It was fun to do, but the games weren't very good."
The CFL tried to spin NBC's decision to walk away after just three weeks as best it could.
"It was disappointing," CFL director of administration Ken Derrett told CFL Illustrated in 1983. "The problem was the timing, If the players had gone on strike two or three weeks earlier we would have had some great TV games, like B.C.'s 36-32 win over Saskatchewan or that 36-35 game between Winnipeg and Saskatchewan. The timing was just off."
The NFL strike continued for another month, ending on Nov. 16, and the season resumed according to its regular schedule the following Sunday. A week of mostly intra-divisional games was added to the end of the regular season, and the off-week between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl was eliminated. Washington went on to beat Miami in the Super Bowl, and NBC got to show it. If fans were mad at the NFL because of the strike, they certainly didn't hold a grudge: Super Bowl XVII drew a Nielsen rating of 48.6—still the second-highest number in Super Bowl history.
CBS, NBC, and ABC were locked into a five-year, $2.1 billion contract with the NFL that had just begun in 1982. (Adjusted for inflation, that's roughly $5 billion in today's dollars.) The networks took $50 million back from the league on account of the work stoppage. (S0me perspective on how long ago this was: In its newest TV deal, which kicks in next season and runs through 2022, the NFL will rake in $3 billion per year from Fox, NBC, and CBS.)
Closer games might have helped the strike ratings somewhat, but NBC's experiment was probably doomed by the simple fact that the CFL isn't the NFL.
Weisman was the executive producer for NBC Sports in 2001, when the network again figured a newborn pro football league was worth a shot, as long as it wasn't trying to compete with the NFL. But like NBC's attempt to dip its toes in the water with the CFL two decades earlier, the network's affiliation with the WWE-led XFL didn't last long, either.
"I think what it proved is that people want to watch the NFL, they want to watch the top college teams," Weisman said. "Just throwing football on the air didn't necessarily satisfy an audience even when there's no football as competition."
(The CFL does remain a U.S. programming option in today's sports television market, which has become saturated with far more channel options than there were in 1982, when most U.S. households didn't have cable. ESPN2 showed games this season, and NBC has again bought in, with games airing on the NBC Sports Network and a number of the network's online platforms.)
Weisman still thinks football in the spring—with the right sort of production, and so long as it's not trying to compete with the NFL for players, as the USFL once tried to—can be a viable television property. He likened NBC's failures with the CFL and the XFL to attempts at broadcasting sports that always draw strong ratings during the Olympics—figure skating, track and field, gymnastics, downhill skiing, swimming—during non-Olympic competitions.
It's just not the the same, he said.
"It's always in the back of your mind that somehow I'm not watching the best at what they do," Weisman said. "It was hard to make heroes—the CFL or the XFL—who, you know if they were any damn good, they'd be playing in the NFL. At the Olympics, you make heroes of this kid from Romania or this kid running from Texas because you know they're the best in the world. But when you see people at events that don't necessarily encompass the best players, you think, 'Why do I give a shit about this guy?'"
Former Deadspinner Dom Cosentino covers the Jets for NJ.com.