07/15/2014 01:28 EDT | Updated 09/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Al Michaels speaks at TV critics tour on Rogers' blockbuster hockey deal

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Thanks for visiting, World Cup soccer. Football fans in America will now take back control of the remote.

"Sunday Night Football" finished the 2013-14 TV season as the No. 1 primetime program in all of U.S. television. This was the third consecutive year NBC's Sunday night football broadcast, which averaged 21.7 million viewers in 2013, topped all shows.

NBC's "Sunday Night Football" broadcast team Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth met reporters earlier this week during the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Neither sees their No. 1 status being tackled by entertainment shows or other sports broadcasts anytime soon.

Well before the season starts, the football hype has already begun. Later this month on 19,000 movie screens across the U.S., NBC will premiere a 2 1/2-minute, behind-the-scenes look at the making of this year's "Sunday Night Football" show opener. Can't wait to see what Carrie Underwood will wear this fall as she belts out, "Waiting All Day for Sunday Night"? Get the sneak peak in theatres.

Part of the push is to promote an expanding network TV schedule of NFL action. CBS will carry Thursday night games for the first six weeks of the U.S. television season, a move that has scrambled TV schedules on both sides of the border and is the latest indication that live sports broadcasting has become television's hottest draw.

Michaels' boasted that, while the recent World Cup broadcasts exceeded even the most optimistic U.S. forecasts, "the ratings were ... less than they would be on a regular Sunday night football game." Not quite true: Sunday's World Cup final between Germany and Argentina drew over 17.3 million viewers on ESPN and an additional 9.2 million on Spanish language channel Univision, boosting the FIFA final to a 26.5 million overall U.S. total. ESPN did even better with Team USA's final effort, with 18.22 million watching that loss to Portugal.

World Cup appeal aside, there is no denying the enduring, annual appeal of NFL football in America. Michaels was asked, however, if the new Thursday network games might be too much of a good thing. "Right now, it's not too much," he said. "You look at the numbers. You look at the ratings. You look at the television rights."

Collinsworth also felt the NFL has not yet reached the saturation point on network television. "Every year I think, OK, this is it," says Collinsworth. "You can't turn on the channel now that they're not talking about the National Football League." With interest in free agency and draft coverage, both felt the NFL was becoming a 12-month obsession for many football fans.

If one accepts that Canadian sports fans are as mad for hockey as Americans are for football, this hunger for live sports coverage would seem to bode well for Rogers Media. The company has invested $5.2 billion over the next 12 years for exclusive rights to nationally carried National Hockey League games. Rogers plans to spread the games over its Sportsnet channels as well as City stations and on-demand services, creating three or four TV "Hockey Nights" a week.

Rival Canadian broadcasters have speculated that this much hockey in primetime is so offside it's icing. Michaels — a big hockey fan who famously called the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" U.S. Olympic triumph — disagrees.

"Remember, hockey is an every-night-of-the-week sport," he said. "You do have 30 teams playing three or four games a week, so, with the schedule, there's going to be a game every night."

Matchups are key to NBC's "Sunday Night Football" success and the network works closely with the league to make sure the games are exciting. NBC has some flexibility in switching matchups to spike interest. Sunday night games featuring the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Vancouver Canucks are key to Rogers' launch of hockey in primetime on City this fall.

"Hockey's a different animal," Michaels suggested. The NFL's stop, start play action makes covering football easier. Both sports, however, have been boosted by high-definition technology, and Michaels certainly has no trouble following the puck.

"My (L.A.) Kings have won the Stanley Cup twice in the past three years," he says. Michaels added he watched every Kings game in their march to the Cup "and felt like I got hit by a car after every one of them. I told (NHL Commissioner) Gary Bettman, this is the only sport where, at the end of the game, the fans are more exhausted than the players. So, to me, keep doing what you're doing with hockey."


Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.