Where are we at with the NFL?
I haven’t been posting much lately. I am entering the home stretch on my book on the evolution of the rules of baseball, and I am aiming for the rare condition of having the manuscript ready comfortably ahead of deadline. We’ll see. In any case, this is sucking up most of my surplus writing time. There are a couple of topics I want to touch on, however. I hope to write something intelligible about the state of baseball going into spring training. Someday I hope to finish my series on why Americans don’t (to a first approximation) play soccer, while everyone else (also to a first approximation) does. Today, however, my subject is the state of the NFL.
I posted on this last year. The gist of the post was that the NFL’s TV ratings were down: about 9 percent for the season, and 6 percent for the Super Bowl. Would the trend continue? I am here now to report that yes, the trend did indeed continue. Ratings for the regular season were down a whopping 9.7 percent below last year’s already declining numbers, and the Super Bowl, which by the way was a sockdollager of a game, were down 7 percent from last year. Folks, what we have here is a trend!
On the one hand, this decline parallels the general decline in television viewing, so the argument is that there is nothing to see here. Articles taking this line like to point out that NFL ratings are still huge, compared with everything else on TV. On the other hand, up to two years ago the talk was that live sports, and especially the NFL, were the bulwark against cord cutting. People who weren’t sports fans might switch to Netflix and Hulu, but the huge number of sports fans wanted to see the games live, and would pay the cable bill for the privilege. This is clearly no longer true, and this is a huge shift.
But perhaps these are people who are cutting the cord out of financial necessity, but remain fans to the extent possible in the post-cable desert. This hypothesis doesn’t hold up. NBC offered the Super Bowl on its streaming platform without charge, or even requiring registration. All those cableless bereft football fans had their chance. So how did those numbers hold up? NBC is very proud to report that a record number of people streamed the Super Bowl. It discreetly doesn’t do the math that would show that the total audience is still down.
When I wrote about this last year, I dismissed the theory that people were tuning out because of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem. I thought at the time that this was a seven day wonder, and the people bitching about it were virtue signalling. The issue has turned out to have staying power, with an assist from other players taking up the practice. The NFL, with its ineffectual flailing about, has managed the neat trick of pissing off both conservatives and liberals. This is surprising, because the NFL traditionally has been absolutely genius at marketing. They overplayed the conspicuous patriotism angle, opening the door to this wackiness.
The lefty-righty problem is a misstep that can in principle be corrected. Head trauma is not. Take away the head trauma and you take away the violence that many fans find appealing. Yet simply admitting that football is a blood sport is unlikely to go over well, either.
The final part of the picture is youth football. Anecdotally, participation in pre-teen football is way down. Reach the high school level and we don’t have to rely on anecdotes. There are real numbers. They show that high school participation is down, and indeed peaked in either 2009 or 2013, depending on whether you look at absolute numbers or percent of eligible boys.
Lose the youth sports and the game becomes something different from what it is. Partly this will be the level of play, as athletic boys choose basketball–or even soccer!?!–rather than football. The cultural shift will be a much bigger deal in the long run. Football is, or was until very recently, a part of the American middle class experience. Having a kid on the high school team was normal and desirable, and your kids very well might go to the game even if they weren’t on the team. Keep on the path we are on, and letting your kid play football will be like keeping a pit bull ring in your back yard, and watching a game like laying down a bet on the fight.
I could be wrong. Perhaps the past two years will turn out to be a brief pause on the road to total NFL domination. Perhaps the Eagles will turn into a dynasty and the rest of the country will fall in love with Philly fans. But I don’t think so. I see a broad cultural shift. Right now the NFL is losing the casual fans, who were only there to be a part of the crowd. This will leave a substantial body of core fans, but I don’t see a path to attracting the next generation. I think we have passed peak NFL.