Everyone knows that ratings are down in the NFL. There has been quite a bit of concern about it actually, and it has been an ongoing issue all season long.
Is there really a serious concern here that Roger Goodell and his owner-bosses should be worried about? Perhaps. But is the NFL really dropping in popularity? Certainly not.
What is happening is that the league has been caught in a perfect storm constructed partly from rare non-NFL events occurring outside its control as well as an evolution in fan viewing habits.
The NFL will have to weather the uncontrollable events, which it will. Then it will have to figure out how to handle the morphing media landscape, a much tougher challenge. But as far as the sport’s popularity, there is nothing to worry about there.
To illustrate that, all you have to do is look at Sunday night’s dreadful Seahawks-Cardinals game. At first blush, you’d figure an unwatchable game wouldn’t help ratings any right? As the two teams slugged it out in what some might call a defensive struggle, but which most would label simply a vast display of incompetence, the teams battled to a 6-6 tie. Both squads, in an apparent attempt not to make the other feel too bad, missed chip-shot field goals in overtime.
But despite all of this, the buzz over such a unique exhibition of ineptitude actually helped. The game was so bad people tuned in to see what the fuss was all about, much in the way that people slow down to get a look at a car accident. The result was a broadcast that ended up drawing 22 percent more viewers than the previous week’s contest between the Colts and Texans.
So people might not be watching as much so far this season, but they’re very much aware, and ready to jump in when something grabs their attention.
Another way to illustrate the NFL’s popularity is attendance, which is as healthy as ever. So far in 2016, 12 teams are filling their stadiums at 100 percent capacity or better for home games. Only the Chargers are drawing at less than 85 percent capacity, and given their ongoing stadium issues – as well as a potential move north to Los Angeles – this is understandable.
Last season, 11 teams drew at least 100 percent capacity, so they’re right in line there.
If the NFL is as popular as ever, then why are ratings down this season? There have been many theories bandied about over this, including everything from people being upset over Colin Kaepernick’s protests, fans disenchanted with the league’s player safety and domestic abuse issues, and the crackdown on player celebrations.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has even posited the theory that there is too much NFL product out there.
“When you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you,” he said. “That’s rule No. 1 of business.”
There is probably something to that, too.
But in the end, it probably boils down to the simple fact that viewers have been captivated by two hugely engaging things on television — the presidential election and the Chicago Cubs’ run to the World Series. Given that the World Series will end no later than Nov. 2 and the election is just six days later, there should be a level of normalcy returning to NFL viewership number within a couple of weeks.
This is not to in any way downplay the challenges ahead facing the NFL.
The number of cable cord-cutters are growing. Fans are more willing than ever to get their live updates on social media and catch the highlights later.
This could be a result of shortening attentions spans, the popularity of fantasy football, the increase in on-demand viewing (read: no commercials) or any number of other things. Heck, anyone who has watched NFL’s RedZone has probably struggled to go back to watching a game in the traditional fashion.
Whatever the reason (or reasons), there is no denying that a four-hour broadcast peppered with non-stop commercials is a big investment for any fan.
But while this is an issue for the league, it’s much more of an urgent issue for the networks, who are locked into lucrative broadcast deals. They need to figure out how best to reach, grab and maintain their audiences. They need to figure out how to deal with evolving viewing habits.
The NFL is a partner in this problem but has a longer runway to figure things out. In the meantime, the league can see how the rest of the season plays out. Will ratings normalize after the election is over? Should it, as Cuban seems to suggest, scale back its product? Is this a blip on the radar or signs of bigger issues to come?
Time will tell, but one thing is certain: Of all the problems the NFL faces, a lack of popularity is not one of them.