Sunday scaries like you read about.
The death of the NFL is all anyone can talk about lately.
From the pristine airwaves of the ESPN mothership to the choppy waters of the Barstool Sports pirate ship, reasons for and rumors of the NFL’s demise dominate the sport’s coverage in the popular media.
Now, there’s a good chance these rumors of demise have been greatly exaggerated. While the TV ratings for the NFL are certainly cause for concern (more on this in a moment), they don’t spell the NFL’s doom, at least not to my eye.
Calling calamity over not-so-nice Nielsen ratings in 2016 is a mere misunderstanding of the modern media culture. Consumers, and sports fans especially, have way more choice than ever for their entertainment.
Instead of only having access to a single NFL game to get their sports fix, athletics junkies can watch a 30-for-30 documentary on one of their favorite teams on broadcast channels or Netflix. Or, they can turn on the NFL or NHL Networks, YES, NESN, SNY or any one of dozens of 24-hour sport- and team-specific cable channels. Or, they can turn on a podcast discussing their favorite sport or team. They can even step onto a virtual field thanks to incredibly realistic renderings on a myriad of gaming systems
With all these choices, people, even football fans, are bound to stray from the primetime programming.
But that doesn’t mean the NFL is out of the woods entirely. Far from it. There are reasons to believe the death, or at least maiming, of the NFL, is at hand, but the TV ratings aren’t among them. At least, not really.
Instead, there are four reasons the NFL and its fans and observers should be worried. I’ll run through them in a moment but keep this in mind as you read: the real problem here, the one that unites all of the NFL’s headaches is the league’s pure arrogance surrounding so many matters.
If and when the NFL does go the way of boxing, remember that overconfidence that Goodell and his owners have exhibited time and time again. When it comes time to solve the mystery of the NFL’s murder, here’s how that arrogance will have done the league in:
Horseman #1: War Concussions and the quality of play
We’ll get this one out of the way first since it’s the most obvious and most discussed. There’s not too much more I can add to the discussion surrounding head injuries in the NFL, except to maybe once again show just how arrogant the league has been on this subject.
Time and time again, Roger Goodell and the league have shown that they think they are much smarter than everyone else when it came to concussions. After all, doctors supported their opinion.
Sure, the NFL knew those doctors were full of it, and the league had no problems feeding them paychecks to make sure the results stayed consistent. But there’s still so much arrogance in this.
“We can fool them,” the NFL said. “The players/journalists/fans will never be able to figure our plan out.”
Like so may have said before me, a lawsuit or something of the like will not be how concussions doom football. More than likely, it won’t even be a severe injury (or worse) on the field of play that turns public opinion, as we’ve seen those before at various levels of the game.
It will be thousands and thousands of parents who push their kids towards soccer, baseball, and hockey, even lacrosse, instead of the gridiron.
It may be a slow death, but it will very much hurt the NFL as the best athletes increasingly move away from the pursuit of football. There are already widespread complaints about the quality and entertainment level of games this year—those complaints will only get louder if the caliber of athlete drops off quickly.
Horseman #2 Pestilence Overexposure
This is where the TV ratings do come into play.
The problem is not that fewer people are watching NFL games live. That’s to be expected, with so many ways to access the games and results these days (again, more on that in a moment.) The problem is how many games people aren’t watching.
The NFL built itself into the backbone of the autumn weekend by somehow making each Sunday and Monday feel like a can’t miss event, even in a world of Hulu, Netflix and DVRs. For the league’s many diehards or even mildly enthusiastic fans, any game on TV was an event worth planning around, and a game featuring your favorite team was enough to dictate your whole weekend.
Many fans will still plan their weekends around their favorite team’s games (I will sheepishly raise my hand and admit I had my alarm set for the Giants early game in London, so I’m not innocent here.) But nationally televised and spotlighted games of the week, the type featured on Sunday, Monday and (now) Thursday night football, just don’t feel as special anymore.
Football games just don’t feel like can’t miss events anymore, simply because there are too many of them.
Fans just a few years ago could access no more than four NFL games on a given week: the 1 PM and 4 PM games on Sunday afternoon (and only the ones broadcast in their geographic area), plus nationally televised games on Sunday and Monday night. That was it, so to miss even one headline game was to miss a substantial chunk of the season.
Now fans with even the most basic cable packages can see games on Thursday night, Sunday afternoon, Sunday night, and a pair on certain Monday nights. We’ve nearly doubled the amount of games that the average fan can consume, and it’s way too much of a good thing.
I’m a much bigger baseball fan than I am a football fan, but I don’t watch every Sunday Night Baseball or Fox Game of the Week, simply because there are far too many of them. It doesn’t feel like I’ve missed much by not tuning into any single game.
What the NFL previously had working in its favor was that exclusivity and scarcity of the product. The towering colossus we see before us was built on every fan watching every game that was televised every week.
That’s simply no longer the case, and it spells trouble for the NFL.
Horseman #3: Famine Social media idiocy
I guess you could just shorten this to “media idiocy.”
In the NFL’s defense, it is certainly not alone in this mistake. It’s joined by America’s other dying pastime, Major League Baseball, as it attempts to shut down anyone who isn’t the League from showing off its product on the internet.
Both leagues are notorious for issuing takedown notices to media members who serve up GIFs, Vines (RIP) or any other form of highlights or content of their games. They’ve shown they have no problem threatening or even punishing popular accounts, all for bringing some spotlight to their sport.
The NFL has even taken it a step further, banning clubs from sharing their own highlights on Twitter and the like. Teams have even resorted to stupid people tricks for workarounds, recreating big plays using toys or other silly methods.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a young, overconfident and spoiled millennial, but this seems remarkably counterintuitive to me.
In 2016, fans, especially young ones, will find ways to watch your content for free, in the manner in which they choose. You can’t take down illegal streams as fast as they can be restored. You can’t suspend Twitter users, bloggers or Vine/GIF creators as quickly as more will take their place. You can’t, I repeat, you cannot stop people from accessing content they want for free; just ask the music industry
And why would you want to? The more people see the product, the better, right?
This is anecdotal evidence, but it’s relevant. I’m a latecomer to the world of hockey. I first realized how fun the sport was during the US Olympic team run in Vancouver, and fell in love with it watching the Islanders pull themselves out of the basement and into a (kind of, maybe, one day for the love of God, please) title contender.
But I’ve fallen in love with the whole league, not just the Islanders. And that’s largely because it’s so easy to find the best plays in the league. I can open Twitter and find enthusiastic media members and fans posting highlights, GIFs, interviews, memes, everything and anything related to hockey under the sun on top of the ice. Similarly, it’s not a challenge to find the most exciting alley-oops, three-pointers, steals and blocks from a night in the NBA.
The NHL isn’t blameless on social media, but they are miles ahead of the NFL. I’m interested and eager to watch NHL games on NBC, even those starting late at night and featuring west coast teams I may not know much about, because I’ve seen their highlights on Twitter.
I may not know about the brilliance of San Jose’s Logan Couture and Arizona’s legion of young playmakers had I not gotten a glimpse of their skills online. But because I have seen them at their best, I’m pretty likely to turn on NBC’s coverage of this week’s contest between the Sharks and the Coyotes (Tuesday evening on NBCSN for those so inclined) at least for a few minutes, to check in.
The NFL goes out of its way to do the opposite. In effect, they are spurning million of dollars in free advertising because they don’t want bloggers/fans/even their own franchises sharing content.
So, even in spite of the league’s over exposure, when I see a primetime game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans, two relatively nondescript teams that play out of my team’s division, I can’t think of many players I really want to see play.
So why would I bother tuning in?
Horseman #4: Death Terrible decision-making
This is what it all comes back to. Starting at the top, the NFL is cursed with leaders that seem to be trying to make the wrong decisions.
The NFL has still yet to show even an ounce of grace in combatting its issues with domestic abuse, even two seasons after the league first went through the Ray Rice controversy. We were promised a reevaluated process in these situations and that the league would learn from their mistakes, and that they would make better decisions in the future.
The Josh Brown debacle proves just how ludicrous that idea was.
The league has decided time and time again to prove just how right it has been, even when it’s actually wrong, not just with domestic violence, but in situations dealing with matters like Tom Brady’s cellphone and the New Orleans Saints’ supposed bounty program. They’ve doubled down on their decision making with more poor choices.
There are countless other instances of poor decision making by the league’s brass, but this may be the biggest one: keeping Roger Goodell in power.
Sure, you can see the short-term reasons for keeping Goodell. Public perception pushed to the side, he’s padded the owner’s pockets over the past few years, and came away with a decisive victory in the most recent labor struggle. Even his mistakes may be of some use to the owners, as the Commissioner is so reviled now that he may absorb some bad will and shift the spotlight off the owners that gave him all this power. Those are the kind of things that will keep you employed as a commissioner.
But while Goodell may be accomplishing his primary goal of making the NFL and its owners and advertisers more money in the short term, he’s making the kind of decisions, time and time again, that will doom its potential in the long run. The NFL owners are being incredibly short sighted in keeping this buffoon in power and will have no one to blame but themselves when he inevitably relegates them to minor-sport status.
And despite all these poor decisions, the NFL remains convinced of their superiority. Even now, we’re told the sagging ratings are caused by protests during the Star Spangeled Banner, rather than too many unintresting games being available.
“We know best,” the NFL, from its commissioner down to its owners and their teams will tell you, even as all of the evidence points to the contrary. “Just trust us.”
In a few years, headlines will read “What Happened to the NFL?” as reporters and analysts argue about why the most successful and profitable American sports league of all time has become a shell of its former self.
But it will be their own arrogance that killed them. These four horsemen may be the ones that bury the knives in the league’s chest, but they are only reaping what the league has sown.