Is the NFL in the Middle of a Meltdown?
Is the NFL losing its popularity? Is the National Football League having an identity crisis? Could we be witnessing the beginning of a long decline in the game so many of us have grown up playing in the back yard and fantasizing about starring in “when we grow up?” In a piece for ProFootballTalk commissioner Roger Goodell was asked about the many possible explanations for the league’s poor TV ratings this year to which he replied: “We don’t dismiss any theory.” Theories as to the league’s dwindling TV ratings do abound though including:
+ It’s an election year
+ Quality of games has been poor
+ Fans fed up with off-field misconduct
+ Too many penalties
+ National anthem protests
One of the possible reasons for the poor television ratings not listed above could also be the lost identity of the game. In the past three seasons alone, NFL owners have voted to change 24 rules in the game. Here are the 24 rules changes for the past three years alone:
I have written about the changing face of football before. It’s clear that the game we are watching today is very different from the game I grew up playing as a kid… although I will admit that was many, many moons ago. It does raise the question: when changing the rules of any game, how may rules can be changed before that game is no longer the same game? Sports Illustrated has listed, “The Ten Reasons NFL Ratings Are Down” which include:
9. Crackdown on Celebrations
8. The Chicago Cubs Playoff Run
7. Daily Fantasy Sports Bans
5. Increases in Competition adn Cord Cutting
4. National Anthem Protests
2. Lack of Star-studded Matchups
1. The Presidentail Election
While these all appear to be legitimate “reasons”… and not just deformed disguises, for a diminished interest, it’s becoming harder and harder to put your finger on just what the (NFL) game of football is or what the owners want the game to be.
The Election Excuse
The reason given more than any other is the drama and volatility of this year’s presidential election. However, I would argue that the past three or four elections were nearly as divisive and the 2000 election result which saw George Bush ultimately winning over Al Gore was hotly contested. Four years ago the numbers of NFL TV viewers dipped a bit but not on par with this year’s 11% slater crater. In 2010, the average NFL viewership was 20.0 million. In 2011 it dropped ever so slightly to 19.8 million and in 2012, an election year, it dropped a little more to 19.3 million.
While the presidential election’s juicy ratings have been off the charts it doesn’t explain the drop in viewership in non-competitive time slots. A debate vs. a boring NFL matchup is something I can understand but I doubt there are many fans giving up watching their team play so they can Google “Clinton” or “Trump.” Consequently, we must assume there is more to the story.
In the list above, Sports Illustrated appears to have baked a more complete apple pie chart as opposed to others who only want to give us a tidy bite at the apple, as to a legitimate reason or reasons for a drop in television spectators. Over-saturation looks fixable. There are only two days per week that separate an NFL fan from the game they covet. Junkies can watch on Monday but only have to sit cold-turkey for two days until Thursday Night Football. Then Thursday Night addicts only have to go into withdrawal on Friday and Saturday (and of course there’s college football to assuage those who get the shakes if they can’t go two whole days without snorting some pigskin).
It’s not just TV watchers anyway. In a piece written for BusinessSideofSports.com called, “Why Has NFL Attendance Declined By Over 2 Million Fans in the Last 36 Months?” which focuses on attendance figures from 2011 to 2014 it states,
“The NFL has done this to itself because they created these multimedia packages and allowed its constituents to be able to access their content online with the NFL Mobile Network. So by them trying to branch out and gain more fans, they have also hurt themselves at home with fan attendance.”
The problem is that now, the TV viewing has fallen off as well. I can’t say if handheld devise-viewing is a reason for fewer TV viewers, or if devise-viewers were included in the TV viewers figures above (but that also seems likely). This piece also points out that game attendance may be in decline because of the high price of seeing a game. From Statista.com comes “The Average NFL Ticket Price by Team” in U.S. dollars in 2015,
While the graphic may be small and hard to read, it begins with the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots at over $130.00 per seat and cascades to the Jacksonville Jaguars at $61.36 per seat (for the average cost of one NFL ticket to a team’s home game).
The Attrition Condition
I’m also of the opinion that each team is suffering another identity crisis of sorts. Take any roster like the Chiefs. I don’t know the exact numbers but would guess that over the course of the past year, more than 100 different players have called themselves Kansas City Chiefs by holding a position on the 53 man roster. The attrition rate is incredible. We love us some John Dorsey but by bringing in every Tom, Dick and Harry every single week of the year, he may be diluting the team identity pool. If not for the specific “star” players, the face of a team would be non-descript. It would be a logo… or a coach… or an owner and it’s stadium. While I can see the appeal of Wrigley Field holding a special place in the hearts of fans, inanimate objects are never great role models for fans to associate themselves with.
Using the Game as a Pulpit
In years past, I would have said that a movie star or great athlete should use their fame as leverage to raise their voice for important causes in our world. However, now it has become Chicken Little on steroids and too much has become way too much. On Friday, a parent of two grown boys said her kids played soccer growing and that now, she and her husband didn’t watch much NFL football anymore because of the “attitudes of players.” That seems to be a trend. Consequently, those who use the game to speak their minds… may be causing irreparable damage to the game that the league is putting out there.
My Way or the Highway Rules Changes = the Highway
I’m in no way arguing that this “micro-society” we call the NFL should resist changing. In fact, it’s a recognized truism that every society faces an inevitability of change. However, I am suggesting that the changes need to reflect the culture itself. As an example, Instant Replay for red flagged plays reflects the capabilities of equipment found in this era. It wasn’t possible in the 1960s, so it wasn’t offered. No, I don’t want the game to go back to the 1960s, I’d like the game to do a better job of reflecting the “capabilities,” as well as the “customs” of this period in time. Consequently, I whole heartedly believe the league’s ban on celebrations is outdated as well as unjust. The NBA and some other sports do a better job of reflecting our societies’ customs than the NFL and fans are likely growing weary. I recall when center Dikembe Mutumbo would block a shot and then wag his finger back and forth as if to say “not in my house.” Now, if Marcus Peters does that, it’s a huge penalty and a game changer. It doesn’t make sense at all, and fans are just tired of the game’s outcomes being dictated by non-sense rules. The same could be said for celebrations. The natural outpouring of emotion that comes when a player scores is being stifled by the league and it’s my contention that the penalties that ensue are damaging the game’s reputation.
Will Football or Futbol Rule the USA?
One very real and obvious reason the NFL may be struggling is the ascendance of other sports like soccer (futbol). Each school I’ve worked at in the past 20 years has been filled with students who play soccer. Nearly no one plays football until they’re in middle school and although Texas is a big football factory, it’s soccer that has been gaining in popularity. The following comes from an article called, “Soccer is Here, For Real This Time” at Huffington Post and this graphic (on the right side) notice at kids from 7 to 17 between the years 2000-2013 and shows the participation-progression for each sport in the millions:
While Basketball and Soccer have taken a major leap in the numbers of kids participating, Football initially looks like it’s progressed but apparently 2006 was a hallmark year at 5.4M and since then has taken a step backward, by 2013.
What’s surprising is that the numbers of NFL TV watchers has been on a steady upward climb… until this season. This comes from USAToday:
“NFL owners gathered Tuesday for their quarterly meeting and assessed the league’s unusual and precipitous dip in TV ratings. Assuming the results aren’t, well, riged, NFL game — the undisputed king of U.S. Sports viewing — were down 11% for the first six weeks of the season when compared to a similar point last year.”
Options, Options, Options
One of ArrowheadOne’s writers, Ransom Hawthorne, so caringly pointed out, that he had other things to do during a Chiefs game last week like, “taking his family to the Zoo” — ah, a man with his priorities in the right place. Of course, this day and age brings with it a plethora of other things to do: multiplex cinemas with 3-D, indoor rock climbing, skateboard parks, wind tunnel skydiving, interactive Science museums, zip-lines, Legoland… and the list goes on (BTW… none of those activities were available when I was a kid). Perhaps there are aspects of the game that the NFL needs to figure out and then… “change with the times.” Hopefully, the owners can figure that out before the game has… passed us by... like the old games of Tug-o-War, Capture the Flag, Badmitten or Marbles.
Ya know, I could always go for a good game of Croquet. I used to be pretty darn good at that. Croquet anyone?