The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB Definitely Aren't Fixing Playoff Games

Joel Anderson  |

Last Sunday, the Detroit Lions played the Dallas Cowboys in an NFL divisional round game that ultimately proved controversial. At a key moment in the fourth quarter, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford attempted a pass to tight end Brandon Pettigrew on a 3rd and 1 and Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens committed what most football fans agreed was a pretty rational pass interference call. A flag was thrown, the Lions had a first down that would allow them to protect their 3-point lead, all was well.

Then, in a positively baffling turn of events, the officiating crew decided to pick up the flag. The Lions stupidly opted not to go for it on 4th and 1, shanked the crap out of a punt, and then watched as the Cowboys drove down the field to score the go-ahead touchdown en route to a win.

You may have correctly gleaned from that last paragraph that I’m not happy about this. As a life-long Lions fan, I’m pretty upset. Very upset. In fact, writing about these events without using language that falls well outside our editorial standards here at is extremely difficult.

The Lions got jobbed and jobbed hard by the officiating crew on Sunday. I know it. You know it. Mike Pereria knows it. President Obama knows it. And he’s a Bears fan, for crying out loud.

However, many Lions fans went one step further than I on the angry fan spectrum: they insisted that the NFL had rigged the game to set up the Dallas vs. Green Bay game this Sunday.


Rigging controversies continue to pop up in professional sports every few years. They usually go as follows: Team A is more nationally recognized than Team B so League C, run by evil Commissioner D, fixed the game to ensure team A would advance and secure better television ratings for the league’s postseason.

It’s an old story. The NBA has supposedly been the biggest offender, with people insisting for years that David Stern was a puppet master carefully guiding the league’s biggest stars into the NBA finals year after year, most infamously in the 2002 Western Conference Finals when the Lakers defeated the Sacramento Kings in an extremely suspect game 7.

Like all conspiracy theories, though, it’s not founded on any quantifiable evidence, and also, it’s really stupid. Not stupid to think that the officiating cost your team the game – that may well have really happened. Like on Sunday when the Lions got totally jobbed. But the idea that it was a calculated move by a league office intent on guiding certain teams or players deep into the playoffs is really silly.

However, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what potential financial gains are actually at stake. In the event that the NFL was really conspiring to create a Tony Romo-Aaron Rodgers match-up in Green Bay this coming weekend (somehow ignoring the ratings tragedy that the Seattle-Carolina game on the other side of that equation looks to be), how can we quantify their potential gain?

We can’t, really, which should be reason one why this is a dumb idea. No one is going to risk a massive scandal unless they know what they’re getting. However, just for arguments sake, let’s try and compare the best and worst television ratings for championship match-ups over recent five-year periods to determine the potential ratings boost and then compare with television revenues.

Nobody Likes the Eagles. Especially Eagles Fans.

So, starting with the Super Bowl, last year’s Super Bowl XLVIII set a new record by drawing an estimated 111,488,000 viewers for a Nielsen share of 46.4. However, going purely by Nielsen share, your top-performing television Super Bowl would be the second meeting between Tom Brady’s Patriots and Eli Manning’s Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.

That game garnered a 47.1 share. It’s also pretty much the exact game that most people would assume to pull down the highest ratings. You have a New York team, capturing the nation’s biggest media market. You have Boston, which is no slouch. You have the age-old Boston vs. New York rivalry represented, not to mention the Super Bowl rematch from five years earlier when the Giants had dramatically upset the undefeated Patriots in an instant classic. You have one of the game’s biggest stars in Tom Brady. You have a Manning. Not the ideal Manning, sure, but a Manning nonetheless. If the NFL were rigging the games, this would be the match-up they want.

For the low end, we’ll use Super Bowl XLIII between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers that brought in a Nielsen rating of 42.

Assuming that we can attribute all of that gap to the match-ups (a huge stretch we’re gonna run with for the purpose of this exercise), that would mean the NFL can create as much as a 12.14% jump in television ratings for the big game by manipulating game outcomes to place its ideal two teams in the Super Bowl.

Celtics-Lakers is Television Magic That Makes Ratings Soar 

For the NBA, our recent high-water mark would be the 2010 finals between the Lakers and Celtics. That series went to seven games and featured many of the game’s biggest names. It alos included the second-largest media market in the country in Los Angeles, and drew upon the much-vaunted Lakers-Celtics rivalry. That drew an average of a 10.6 share for each game.

The low point, not shockingly, involves the San Antonio Spurs’ inspired combination of low-key personalities and fundamentally solid basketball that could just as easily be renamed snoozeball. Their 2007 series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a 4-0 sweep for San Antonio, drew an abysmal 6.2 share per-game average despite LeBron James appearing in his first finals.

That gives us a much more robust 70.97% jump over just three years for the NBA.

That is, though, at least partially based on the fact that 2007’s NBA finals had just brutally bad viewership ratings. In fact, that 6.2 average share was the lowest since…well, the Spurs-Nets series in 2003 that pulled an average 6.5 share. So the Spurs are ratings poison.

So, just for comparison sake, let’s take the lowest NON-Spurs final within five years of that 2010 series. That would be the 8.5 average from 2006’s Heat-Mavericks final. That’s a much more reasonable 24.7% jump from your low to your high.

The Yankees Suck, but Their Ratings Sure Don’t

Tempting as it may be to go back to the 2004 World Series between the Red Sox and the Cardinals for our high point (it averaged a 15.8 share), I think that would skew our results. The end of the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino isn’t the sort of ratings gold MLB could ever hope to replicate up until the Cubs get back to the World Series (for the first time since the end of World War II) or win it (for the first time since Russia had a Czar).

So instead, we’ll focus on a marquee match-up crooked MLB executives could at least hope to replicate in 2009’s Yankees-Phillies series. There, you have the Yankees, who pretty much everyone hates but also hate-watches, and the Phillies. That series went six games and averaged an 11.7 share.

For the low point, we jump to 2012’s sweep by the Giants over the Detroit Tigers. That averaged just a 7.6 share, which is nice to hear because it means my fellow Tigers fans and I weren’t the only ones to suffer for those four games.

That would mean the potential bump enjoyed by fixing games would be 53.95%.

Nobody Really Cares About Ottawa

For our hockey match-up, we’ll look back to the 2010 Stanley Cup between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers. This was a tragically low high point at an average of just 3.4. America seems to think even the Spurs are better TV than hockey, which is a travesty.

Pop quiz! What’s the capital of Canada? No, not Toronto, but it’s not surprising you didn’t know that based on our comparative low. The Anaheim Ducks won their lone Stanley Cup in five games in 2007 over the Ottawa Senators, a series that boasts the dubious honor of an all-time average low of just 1.2. Now, if ever there were a sport where fixing games made sense, it’s going to be hockey as that’s a 183.33% jump from low to high.

How do We Put a Price Tag on That?

So what does that mean in terms of money? Harder to say.

The leagues sign large, multi-year deals with multiple networks that include the regular season and the playoffs, so a great ratings year for the Super Bowl doesn’t necessarily mean the NFL can anticipate more money for next year’s game. It would, however, provide the NFL with more leverage over TV networks the next time they’re at the table (which is no joke considering live sports are one of the last things keeping traditional television alive).

So, just for simplicity’s sake, let’s go ahead and assume that there’s a direct relationship between television ratings and television contracts. The NFL receives $5 billion a year for its TV rights, followed by the MLB at $1.5 billion a season, then the NBA at $930 million a season, and bringing up the rear is the NHL with a positively depressing $200 million annually.1

If we assume that the ratings jump in the Super Bowl translates directly, the NFL would stand to make an additional $600 million a year if it got optimal match-ups every year. The NBA could pull down another $660 million or $229.7 million (depending on whether or not we count the Spurs), the MLB is looking at another $809.25 million, and the NHL could nearly triple its American TV revenue with another $366.66 million a season.

Playoffs Just One Piece of a Very Large Pie

But this isn’t factoring in the fact that the bulk of the value for those contracts are actually coming from the regular season. Those games can’t necessarily be fixed as most teams are playing preset schedules formed in accordance with a transparent set of guidelines involving the division and conference make-up.

So, how might we correct for that? Not cleanly, but here goes:

The NFL averages 16.6 million viewers per regular season game. Multiply that by 256 regular season games and you’re looking at 4,249,600,000 total viewers over the course of the regular season. Then, you have earlier playoff rounds. The divisional round grabs about 30 million viewers a game for four games, so let’s add 120 million to that total and then another 120 million for the second round. We assume that we can double that audience for the conference finals (which is generous but not too far off), so add another 120 million for those two games, and then the Super Bowl, which appears to pull just short of 120 million a year at this point but we’ll just round it up to make it all match.

That would mean that the NFL can expect about 4.7 billion total viewers over the course of the entire season, which is great because it’s darn close to $1 per viewer in their TV contract. It also means that the audience of 120 million in a record-breaking Super Bowl would really be about 2.5% of that total.

For the NFL, 2.5% of their $5 billion TV contract is just $125 million, which would mean that their 12.14% jump in Super Bowl ratings would translate to just $15.175 million a season. Even if you were to fix every playoff matchup, which would include fixing which teams make the playoffs and subsequently require fixing dozens of more regular season games, playoff viewership is just a little over 10.15% of the total. So, the 12.14% bump in ratings would garner you just an extra $61.6 million a year in your next TV contract.

When you consider that the NFL has total annual revenues of about $9 billion, that $61.6 million hypothetically to be gained by executing a positively massive match-fixing endeavor to get every ideal playoff game would represent a 0.7% bump in annual revenue. Not worth it folks.

What About the Also-Rans?

The other three leagues present a lot more difficulty because regular season games appear on different networks with different viewership depending on where they’re showing. So, fair or not, I’m going to go ahead and apply that 10% of total viewership coming from the playoffs figure to our other leagues if for no other reason than because trying to break down per-game NBA viewership on ESPN vs. TNT vs. ABC vs. local cable stations nationwide sounds like a nightmare.

So, the NBA would then be looking at an additional $23.3 million per season, $67 million if you count the Spurs, which translates to 0.5% and 1.3% of total league revenues respectively. Baseball is looking at the potential to pick up another $82 million a year, or about 1% of their $8 billion in total annual revenue. And finally hockey could hypothetically pick up another $37.2 million, or 1.1% of total revenue.2

All that is assuming that the league could optimize the outcomes of both every team making the playoffs and every playoff series.

If They’re Fixing Games, They’re Picking Some Weird Ways to Do It

Look, obviously, this was not a terribly precise/scientific approach, but it does demonstrate that the proportions of total revenue that are even hypothetically involved are tiny for even the most elaborate and competent of conspiracies. It’s also pretty clear, when looking over the ratings for different series over the years, that if any of these leagues has been trying to orchestrate ideal playoff match-ups, they’ve been doing a really bad job of it.

The NBA, the league most-associated with these rumors, has a much, much bigger incentive to conspire to keep the San Antonio Spurs out of the finals at all costs than it ever did to push the Lakers in back in 2002. The Spurs, though, have been to the finals six times in the last 15 seasons, meaning that if David Stern was rigging the playoffs, he was really terrible at it.

What’s more, the idea that it’s easy to correlate the match-up that seems ideal and television ratings is specious at best. Take, for instance, Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005. Tom Brady’s Patriots against the Philadelphia Eagles, featuring star quarterback Donovan McNabb and lightning-rod wide receiver Terrell Owens each appearing in their first (and only) Super Bowl. Throw in the presence of two classic sports towns in major media markets and this was a recipe for success.

The results? A paltry 86 million viewers at a 41.1 share, almost 3 million fewer viewers than Super Bowl XXXVIII the year prior and more than 4 million less than Super Bowl XL the next year.

Last year’s Super Bowl, also, demonstrates how unpredictable ratings can be. Seattle is one of the same markets that played in the relative ratings dud of Super Bowl XL (along with Pittsburgh), while Denver played in Super Bowl XXXIII in front of a scant 83.7 million viewers. Both represent much-smaller cities and media markets than either the Patriots or the Eagles.

How did these two teams rise so high? Well, mostly Peyton Manning, I’m guessing. But it also had something to do with a certain post-game interview from Richard Sherman that stirred up national interest – a series of events that would have been impossible for the NFL to anticipate.

In the end, even if you’re ready to ignore the incredible logistical nightmare that any actual conspiracy to place certain teams in later playoff rounds would represent, and how unlikely it would be that no one would crack during the indefinite cover up that would have to follow, and the inability to accurately predict how different in-season storylines will ultimately affect television ratings, the basic financial incentive isn’t there.

Sorry fellow Lions fans. I’m really cheesed off, too, but the conspiracy is definitely a really absurd idea.



1. It should be noted that all my figures for hockey focused entirely on the American side of things. The league actually picks up two-thirds of its TV revenue from the Canadian side of its contracts so it’s possible that including that along with Canadian ratings you might ultimately create a clear justification.

2. But that’s total revenue vs. American television ratings, so it means even less than the other three.

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