Fewer people are watching the NFL on TV, and no one really knows why.
The NFL Players Association admits that the trend is an obvious concern. The league has kept quiet, likely fearful that talking about the situation would lend credence to the dynamic, possibly causing other fans who are still watching the games to say, “Maybe I should stop, too.”
The decline has become a mystery, for the media and surely for the NFL. The league’s failure to discipline more aggressively players who have engaged in off-field misconduct possibly has turned off some fans. A perception that the league reacts too heavy-handedly in other matters (like #DeflateGate and the Saints bounty scandal) could cause others to think the NFL hopes to steer certain teams toward success and to make it harder for others to succeed.
These two dynamics have contributed to an intense sense of disdain by plenty of fans for Commissioner Roger Goodell. It’s odd, however, to think that fans are choosing not to watch the NFL on TV because they don’t care for the man whose name appears on the football. (That said, it’s likely no accident that Goodell largely stays out of view.)
The disconnect between the images televised across the country in high definition and the things seen by the naked eye in real time by seven officials interspersed with young, strong, large, fast men in armor remains a far bigger problem than the league office ever would admit. The NFL seems to have a general reluctance to fully embrace technology in order to get the calls right. At some point, however, the league must take more seriously the impact of fan frustrations arising from the sense that what everyone else sees is missed by the small group of people whose vantage point is the most important.
The ongoing desire to expand the NFL’s reach to other countries likely alienates some fans as well, given the potential belief that the league is taking the domestic audience for granted as it tries to spread the pro football virus around the globe. The mere mention of, for example, an international franchise or a Super Bowl played beyond borders of the U.S. sparks a strong negative reaction from plenty of fans.
Meanwhile, viewing habits have changed, dramatically. The younger generation no longer congregates around a large box; they carry small ones everywhere they go, constantly staring at them like zombies peering in to a sardine can full of brains. Many members of Generation Z don’t feel compelled to take the time to witness the flow of a game, the shifts in momentum, the nuances that set the stage for game-changing moments in the fourth quarter. They just want the highlights and the stats, so that they can see how their favorite team and, perhaps more importantly, their fantasy team performed.
Speaking of fantasy football, consider the perspective of kids who were born after the rise of what once was a collateral consideration to traditional rooting interests. With the pieces of a fantasy team spread over various NFL franchises, plenty of fans may not have the same zeal about one specific team, with the us-against-the-world mindset inherent to pre-fantasy fans fully undermined by the reality that, for example, an ardent Panthers fan may have Saints quarterback Drew Brees on his fantasy team.
Some would say the election is a factor, but if anything the political consternation should be causing people to more fervently embrace their diversions. Apart from the conflicts between prime-time games and two of the presidential debates, fans should be regarding NFL games as an escape from the political nonsense.
The quality of the early-season matchups could be an issue, due in large part to a lesser number of star players on great teams. Peyton Manning has retired, Tom Brady is suspended (his team nevertheless had two of its first three games televised nationally), and some of the best quarterbacks remain largely unknown and/or unaccomplished.
The concussion crisis, and the reality that football has become the pin cushion for criticism even though plenty of sports and other activities entail a risk of head injuries, likely has caused some fans to feel guilty about watching or enjoying football. In turn, the league’s efforts to make the game safer probably has influenced others who want big hits and who don’t care about the physical consequences to lose interest.
Some are suggesting that the anthem protests are causing fans to boycott the NFL, but it’s hard to see a connection between the objections to the behavior of a small group of players and the decision of significant numbers of fans to deprive themselves of something they enjoy. The NFL has made its position on the anthem clear, and the vast majority of players continue to stand at attention.
Even with the decline, nothing brings a live audience together like the NFL (except for The Walking Dead). But it’s clear the NFL has reason to worry, and that it has work to do. A more aggressive and creating marketing push could be needed, along with a willingness to consider significant changes to the rules and the officiating procedures.
Whatever the reasons, and there surely are many, the NFL has billions of reasons to figure them out -- and to begin the process of addressing the problem. Publicly ignoring the issue is fine. If they’re privately paying no attention to it, the league will be in or a rude awakening when the time comes to negotiate the next set of TV deals.