National Football League and broadcast network executives are sweating more in this preseason than the players who must endure conditioning wind sprints in summer heat. The guys in suits and ties saw a big dip last year in television ratings for NFL games, and they worry another drop in viewership this season will start to hurt their wallets. A one year drop in ratings is one thing. A second year of decline becomes a trend.
A recent report in Variety magazine indicates that ad buyers who place commercials on prime time television expect a continued decline in eyeballs for NFL broadcasts this season. Ad sales executives have apparently sniffed out that the NFL ratings difficulties are real and maybe not temporary. To be sure, football is still a solid buy for advertisers and grab better ratings in prime time than dingbat sitcoms or bizarre dramas, but huge money is at stake for even modest ratings downturns. Another eight percent drop in ratings, as was experienced last year, will make networks question the huge rights fees they pay to broadcast games. Further, advertisers will balk at paying the exorbitant costs for commercials on NFL broadcasts.
The shrinking viewership of last season was rationalized away with a head-in-the-sand approach that would make an ostrich proud. The national election was blamed as a cause as though rabid football fans would sacrifice their favorite sport to watch a Hillary campaign rally. The retirement of NFL poster boy Peyton Manning was cited, even though other stars were emerging to throw and catch TD passes.
The NFL gets more visibility in the news sections these days than in the sports sections. That’s a major deterrent for regular guys who just want to enjoy the sport of football. Franchises depart fan bases to move to other locations. Super wealthy team owners expect taxpayers to cover the costs of extravagant stadiums. Every week, an NFL player (or several) is arrested for brawling, domestic violence, drugs, or some other offense. The league was oblivious for too long on the issue of concussions. Fans who must suffer the negative news about the NFL find it harder to focus on the sport itself.
The league has utterly failed to effectively manage the protocol for pregame ceremonies that feature the national anthem. A league that penalizes a player for arguing a pass interference call or taunting an opponent on the field is apparently OK with a smattering of players protesting the national anthem, defending the display as free expression. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reflected on the anthem protests recently, saying, “We have to understand that there are people that have different viewpoints.” But this is a league that has strict restrictions on players’ use of social media on game days, and prohibits coaches from publicly criticizing referees. This is the same league that denied Peyton Manning from wearing black hightop shoes as a tribute to legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas. Apparently, only some differing viewpoints are tolerated at NFL headquarters. The NFL, like most other workplaces, is definitely not a bastion for free speech.
NFL and broadcast executives have overplayed a winning hand by trying too hard to make the game bigger than life with super-hyped broadcasts, inflating the images of star players, planning for international expansion, and endless analysis and highlight shows. But NFL football on television is not bigger than life. In fact, it is not real life at all. It is a game that provides average people a distraction from real life. The reality is that games take too long to play, are often predictable, and broadcast on too many nights. An NFL game on television is just not that special any more.
The average Joes and Josephines want to focus on the action, the athletic accomplishments, and the winning and losing. When pro football becomes embroiled in the aggravations that permeate daily culture, fans are going to flee. They don’t need cultural confusion or political polarization. The NFL had better get its focus on football and clean up the madness that diverts fans’ attention from the game itself. Pro football might look healthy enough on the surface, but last year’s television ratings amount to a sack on second down. The league now faces third and long and a dive play up the middle won’t move the chains.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University.