The NFL is hemorrhaging money right now, at a rate that could add up to a $500 million loss in revenue compared to last year. That revenue loss is being felt by the tv networks that carry NFL games, CBS, ESPN, Fox, and NBC. But revenue losses for networks mean significantly reduced TV contracts for the NFL.
One of the main factors in that loss of revenue has been a 20% drop in audience since 2015, the year the NFL saw a peak in viewership. Many will look at the NFL’s recent spate of National Anthem protests as the main culprit behind this decline. The protests began last season when then-San Francisco Quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a new while the National Anthem played.
To be sure, the NFL is most likely getting some blowback from the protests and from the NFL’s initial support of the protests, as well as the NFL’s continued mixed reaction to the protests. But does that alone explain the loss in ratings, which equals a loss in revenue?
There may be other factors coming in to play that are leading to the loss in ratings for the NFL. One of those factors could very well be the rules changes designed to protect players, changes that happened as a result of discoveries made about the ongoing issues that players suffer as a result of concussions, issues that have led players to experience significant health issues, even mental issues, including suicides (such as Junior Seau) that have been linked to what is called CTE.
A long-term problem for the NFL linked to CTE is being seen already at the middle school and high school levels as less and less kids are now playing football thanks, in large part, to parents not wanting their kids to play a sport they are increasingly looking at as being too dangerous to play.
On this front, however, there are rapid developments in helmet technology that might, down the road, restore some lost trust in the game that parents are currently experiencing. But right now, CTE has already triggered significant rules changes that negate one of the major draws to the game, hard hits.
Another factor is the addition of two LA teams, the Rams and the Chargers. These teams serve the 2nd biggest market in the country, but that market does not seem to be all that interested in these teams. The LA Rams, for instance, played a big game this past week in LA against the New Orleans Saints, possibly the then-second hottest team in the NFL, behind the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Rams were 7-3 and the Saints were 8-2 This was a big showdown that, across the country, garnered a lot of attention. Yet the stadium itself was, perhaps, 2/3 full. What’s more is that lack of interest in coming out to see the games live is also translated to the tv sets.
The 2nd biggest market in the country is not interested in the two teams you brought from areas that supported those same teams strongly. It’s not tuning in to see those games and the NFL is not giving them non-local choices, so, overall, the ratings in the 2nd biggest market have gone down significantly.
There may be other factors as well, factors not everyone is mentioning, such as illegal livestreams that meet the needs of a large audience that has left cable tv in favor of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc.
There is a shift in how we do things, possibly even in how we think, that has emerged from social media. People simply do not have as long of an attention span as they once had, and many seem to be content with simply watching the highlights of the game after it ends.
Lastly (and no, this is not in order of significance), we get to the protests. It’s more than just the protests and the inept way the NFL has handled these protests. It’s the politicization of everything, including the NFL. Before the protests, the NFL threw its political weight around to go after North Carolina after it passed its so-called bathroom laws. Before that, the NFL threatened the state of Arizona with losing its scheduled Super Bowl if it did not roll back legislation that seemed to ‘legalize’ profiling of people who looked Hispanic.
Whatever you feel about those decisions, when the NFL decided to go all-in with one particular political faction in America, it was bound to alienate itself from another political faction. You can’t have your game and politicize it too, NFL. I believe this factor actually IS the most significant factor of them all, though proving that assumption could be extremely difficult. So while the protests in and of themselves may be doing some damage, the larger issue is doing far more, the progressivization of the NFL.
But I also believe that this factor alone would NOT have produced the significant declines we’ve seen in the ratings, nor will leaving politics out of the NFL fix a lot of the other issues outlined above that, midterm, and definitely long term, threaten the NFL’s status as being the marquee sports league in America today.
The diminishing ratings of the NFL, and even the suggestion by some that the NFL cannot survive the changes currently taking place, is yet another indication of how fundamental the shift in cultural realities has been and will continue to be over the next few years as we find ourselves, again and again, having to come to terms with the fact that a lot of the old institutions, the old ways no longer seem to be working in the environment now emerging today.