Brett Favre may not be ready for prime time but the fans were

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The networks better pray there isn’t an NFL lockout next season.

Thursday night’s National Football League opening game on NBC between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints drew 27.5 million viewers, the biggest audience for a prime-time regular season game in 14 years. Not bad considering that most of the action was over in the first half.

Brett Favre may have looked rusty for the Minnesota Vikings, but fans were in midseason form. Of course, all the promotion from NBC and the NFL for the game probably made most feel it would be downright un-American to not tune in to the game, which the Saints won 14-9.

The 27.5 million viewers was a 32% increase over NBC’s 2009 season opener, in which the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans. The most-watched prime-time regular season game ever was a 1996 Monday night matchup between Green Bay and Dallas, which averaged 31.5 million viewers.


‘This shows what can happen when we apply a strategic, multi-platform marketing approach to put a broad promotional blitz behind a project,’ NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said in a statement. (That’s code for ‘we threw everything we had at hyping the heck out of this thing because we’re paying $660 million a year for these games.’)

There has been a lot of speculation that there will be labor unrest next season and that the 2011 season is in jeopardy. The networks collectively pay over $3 billion a year for football. If there is a lockout, the networks are still on the hook for their rights fees. However, ultimately the league would be required to make sure the networks got that money back eventually.

Among the issues that the NFL isn’t on the same page with its players on include salaries and an 18-game schedule. The NFL is really pushing for a longer season, against the wishes of the NFL Players Union, who are concerned about the wear and tear of two extra games on the players.

If the season is extended, the networks would likely want more money from the networks as well as DirecTV. At the same time, there are risks to extending the season that go beyond the health of the players. A longer season could mean more meaningless games at the end of the season. Furthermore, the NFL wants to cut the preseason from four games to two games, and local stations count on preseason games as a strong source of ad revenue.

A lockout would also leave the broadcast networks without a huge platform to promote their shows. And unless the NFL tries to offer up games played by replacement players as it did in 1987, the networks would have to come up with product to fill the void.

-- Joe Flint