The National Football League had an objectively bad year in 2017.
Primetime television ratings are down nearly 10% overall on average this season; players took up the mantle of Colin Kaepernick from last season and began kneeling or raising a fist during the national anthem to protest police brutality, alienating some fans and forcing NFL corporate sponsors to take sides; President Trump fueled the political narrative by targeting the league in tweets and at live rallies; and a polling firm says the NFL is now one of the most divisive brands in America.
Fewer Americans now identify themselves as football fans compared to five years ago, while fans of the NBA and NHL have grown, according to Gallup.
Amidst all this, the NFL extended the contract of its commissioner, Roger Goodell, for five more years at pay of up to $40 million per year if he hits certain metrics.
Some fans were surprised that the NFL would renew Goodell. (He reportedly wanted lifetime healthcare for his family, and lifetime use of a private jet.) But people too often forget that Goodell works for the team owners, and has one main job, in their eyes: make them money.
Goodell has done his job. The league’s revenue has climbed every year for more than a decade, to $14 billion this year. And the declining ratings do not mean lower revenue for the league, at least not yet, because its television deals are locked in already; it is broadcast networks who stand to lose from the falling ratings, since they will have to give back ad time.
Most of the headwinds against the NFL right now are not Roger Goodell’s fault. Most are not even really the NFL’s fault, either. They are macro business factors that the biggest sports league in the country cannot stop, try as it might. There’s good reason why Michael Lewis, author of “The Big Short,” tells Yahoo Finance the next big short could be the NFL.
Cord-cutting and attractive distractions
The biggest challenge facing live football is simple cord-cutting. Sports fans are increasingly able to find highlights and replay clips online, on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, so they feel less of a need to pay for cable to watch live games. This trend is hurting ESPN and Fox Sports 1 as well, not to mention viewership of other sports, too, like Nascar racing. (The NBA, on the other hand, has seen its ratings go up.)
In addition to cutting their cable packages, Americans have a wider array of exciting viewing distractions arrayed before them than ever before, thanks to original streaming series from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO, and Showtime.
According to Sports Business Daily, ESPN averaged 10.8 million viewers for its Monday Night Football games this year, the lowest average on record, and NBC averaged 18.2 million viewers for Sunday Night Football games this year, the lowest figure since 2008.
Last year, when NFL television ratings fell, the league pointed to the distraction of the presidential election. What’s the excuse now?
All that being said, it’s important to remember that NFL games still dominate other live programming. 44 of the best-rated primetime TV programs of 2017 were NFL games. So think of it this way: primetime NFL games, for years and years, delivered outstanding ratings; now they deliver just very good ratings. As Wasserman advertising executive Elizabeth Lindsey told Yahoo Finance this year, “Football is football.” To big advertisers, the NFL is still the best game in town for reaching lots of eyeballs.
So don’t believe screaming headlines that declare the death of the NFL. The NFL is hardly dead or even dying—but it may have already hit its zenith of popularity. And the truth no one wants to acknowledge is that the NFL could afford to take a small haircut in viewership, and maybe even revenue, and still remain a major force in American pro sports.
It is certainly not the biggest factor in the NFL’s ratings decline, but outrage among some football fans over player protests has had a net-negative impact on the popularity of the league.
Colin Kaepernick did not get signed to a new team this season, but in his absence, other players took up the mantle and began protesting. In September, at a rally in Alabama, President Trump trashed the NFL for allowing players to protest, which intensified the attention on the protests. NFL corporate sponsors were soon pressured to respond.
All of this, regardless of your own political view, did nothing to help NFL viewership. But political tension ranks lower on the list of factors damaging the league than the broader turmoil in television habits.
Bad games, too many games
Another ding against the NFL this season, one that arguably can’t be blamed on the league’s scheduling but can be pinned on the league more than cord-cutting can, has been unexciting games. Some fans and media are now complaining about over-saturation, an unthinkable concept just a few years ago: is there too much football? Does the NFL really need to have three nights per week of games?
Thursday Night Football began in 2006. It is an experiment that many NFL players still vocally hate because playing on a Thursday night game gives them a short 5 days to practice. The gameplay on the field last season backed up the complaints: Thursday games average fewer total offensive yards than Sunday or Monday games.
In a related trend, the NFL rulebook became another topic of discussion this season. Controversial calls like the one against Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, or the one against Steelers tight end Jesse James, reignited scrutiny over what exactly constitutes a valid catch. Confusion and squabbling over its rulebook is the last thing the NFL needs.
In the past two years, the health dangers of playing pro football came back to the fore as an issue of widespread public concern. Concussions were always a part of the game, but recent medical reports on severe long-term brain damage in deceased NFL players have raised new red flags and turned off many viewers.
A study this year by Boston University tested 111 brains of deceased NFL players and found evidence of CTE in 110 of them. A separate examination of the brain of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez after his death found that he had advanced CTE at just 27 years old.
On the release of the October 2017 Gallup poll that found 57% of Americans identify as NFL fans, down from 67% in 2012, Gallup editor Jeffrey Jones pointed to domestic violence cases off the field and to head injuries. “In recent years, the NFL has come under fire for its handling of domestic violence cases involving players,” he told Yahoo Finance, “and its response to research on the effects of concussions on brain health among former players.”
The NFL, for its part, has sought to improve safety by introducing new and more high-tech helmets. But some say no helmet can ever make the game safe. Last year, legendary NFL running back Paul Hornung sued Riddell for not adequately protecting players.
As the sportswriter Rich Cohen puts it, “Football is violence. That’s the game. You can’t get rid of it, because then there’s nothing left. If you take the violence out of football, you don’t really have football.” Cohen, author of the 2013 book “Monsters” on the 1985 Chicago Bears, says, “I think that football is in trouble because basically, you watch a sport you played as a kid. And all the stuff that’s come out about head injuries to kids, kids aren’t playing. And that group of kids is up for grabs. If you’re a parent, it’s very hard to let your kid go out and be involved in repetitive blows to the head when they’re eight or ten years old.”
The biggest question about the major American pro sports leagues in the next few years will be: For how much longer can the NFL remain the most popular league? Super Bowl 52 will be a good indicator, since the audience size for the Super Bowl is generally not dependent on what happened in the regular season.