Tonight, the 0-9 Cleveland Browns take on the 4-4 Baltimore Ravens. While the Raves are expected to win in a snooze fest, would anyone be all that surprised if the game ended in a tie? The Browns could win and thus reduce the number of teams in the NFL with a winning record but most likely the Ravens will jump out to a commanding lead and liberate NFL fans from watching yet another depressing Thursday Night game. The NFL is terrible; it has been terrible for quite some time now but this is the first season where the NFL ratings have shown a decline. This should not come as a surprise to anyone since the NFL has created an uneasy relationship with their players and most importantly their fans.
NFL owners extort the cities where their teams play
If you follow the shenanigans of NFL team owners, you really get a sense on how little they care for the fans and residents of the cities where their teams play. The Los Angeles Rams, formerly of St Louis, was the first team since 1997 to relocate. This is unique that every single year about 4 NFL teams threaten to relocate (typically to Los Angeles or Las Vegas) if the cities do not provide them with tax payer funded new stadiums. The city politicians who do not want to be saddled with the spectre of losing an NFL team while in office and thus harming their chances of re-election, quickly push through sweetheart deal for the team owners often without letting the city residents attend any meeting or allow them to vote on the proposal. The owner of the Rams, Stan Kroenke, couldn’t resist getting one last dig at the city of St Louis on his departure. St Louis is still stuck with the stadium debt. The NFL shared 7.2 Billion dollars last year to every team and had an additional record net profit. Surely some of those dollars would be better spent funding their own stadiums rather than aggravating their fans?
Unlike the NBA and MLB stadiums which can be more centrally located cities, NFL stadiums are typically more remotely located due to the sheer size of the stadiums and corresponding parking lots which is essential for tailgating. The cost of simply parking is often over $50 dollars and the food and beverage costs at these stadiums are very expensive. Food and beverage costs seems to be expensive across all professional leagues these days but the sheer amount of time a person spends at an NFL games means that they will end up spending more money.
Poor social media and fan relations
NFL has not embraced the social media revolution and has a general dismissive attitude to its fans. The NFL has banned team from posting on social media. So good luck if you want to see a highlight on Twitter or Instagram from the team you’re following during the game. The NBA has a passive interest in preventing fan from posting content on social media as they realize that it only serves to generate interest in the game but the NFL doesn’t seem to realize that. The NFL has about 10 million videos on YouTube all carefully curated by themselves whilst the NBA has close to 16 million videos on YouTube with a substantial number of them uploaded by fans.
The NFL product is simply not good enough
It is an ordeal to watch an NFL game as a causal fan. From crazy 10 am London games to Thursday and Sunday night games that creep past midnight, one must dedicate a sizable amount of their free time to follow the sport. I used to wake up at 12:55pm just in time for the 1pm kickoff and watch all three games until midnight. This is simply not an option for a lot of people anymore. The games themselves are less fun the last few seasons with a poor balance between passing and running the ball. Scoring controversies, a rule book thick and constantly changing that the referees are unsure of how to make certain calls and numerous lengthy delays while the officials review a play. All of these points would be less of an issue if not for the fact that competing interests have undeniably gotten better. MLB interest has increased with the reemergence of marquee teams such as the Dodgers, Mets, Red Sox, Indians and of course the World Series Cubs. The NBA is currently experiencing unprecedented interest due to Warriors, Cavaliers and emerging young players such as Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid. Even the spectacle of losing is mitigated by the fact that most fans are actually engaged when a team starts to thank and if even if they disagree with “the process” of tanking, it still stimulates discussion of the sport. The NFL is even losing viewers to eSports.
The NFL lacks marquee teams
Out of the 32 teams in the NFL, there are only 12 teams with a positive scoring differential over 20. There are only 11 teams with winning records. There have been two tied games so far this season. The NFL is divided sharply between the haves and the have nots. The New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks are the only teams that can boast a stable franchise with franchise quarterbacks. There is great optimism for fans of the Oakland Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys but the rest of the league teams with winning records do not have much panache (Broncos, Chiefs and Texans) or have low ceilings (Vikings, Giants and Lions). The main reason is that the NFL is losing their best players to retirement at a rate faster than they can replace them. Football is a brutal game and their stars are particularly susceptible to long or season ending injuries (Adrian Peterson, Cam Newton, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Doug Martin just a name a few). The rest of the teams are stuck in mediocrity and while they have some good talent, it’s simply not enough to generate sustained success over multiple seasons which is what is needed to create long term interest. Right now there is a sizable amount of NFL fans who support their teams in a masochistic way (Browns, Bears, Jaguars, Rams, Bills, Dolphins, Bengals, Titans and the 49ers). These are the fans most apt to turn off their televisions when their teams are losing.
The NFL has an uneasy relationship with its players
The best and most popular player on the best team in the league was handed a four game suspension after a lengthy and mishandled investigation over something deemed trivial by the majority of sports fans. I’m not a fan of Tom Brady nor the New England Patriots but the sheer absurdity of the entire Deflategate scandal surely damaged the prestige of the NFL. Peyton Manning who was one of the most successful and marketable NFL stars had his own sexual harassment scandal, following the likes of Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger. The NFL has fined players for raising awareness for breast cancer, domestic abuse but somehow had the common sense not to fine the players who decided to pay tribute to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Recent Superbowl players Cam Newton, Richard Sherman and Colin Kaepernick have also been critical of the NFL and/or used their status to increase awareness to social causes but have not been backed by the NFL. This is in stark contrast to the immediate support the NBA gave to Carmelo Anthony for his stance on violence. There have been highly inconsistent punishments for players with domestic violence cases (Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Josh Brown) and for failing marijuana tests which is legal in some states. The NFL has a huge concussion problem and the long term health concerns of its players are becoming more visible. This poor, public relations cannot help the NFL retain casual viewers.
People love Fantasy Football more than the NFL
I used to be a huge fantasy football fan. I played multiple leagues each season with both snake and auction drafts before I got burnt out and lost interest. There were 75 million fantasy football players in 2015 and this number will surely increase this year even with the legal issues DraftKings and FanDuel are having with their daily fantasy sports model. This means that there is a disproportionate amount of people invested in individual player’s production rather than the team itself. If you go to any sports bar these days, you will find more patrons checking their fantasy scores on their phone instead of watching the game. There are many people who prefer to watch NFL Redzone which provides only scoring clips of the games rather than watch a full game. This can pique interest and generate new fans in the short term, especially amongst females and recent immigrants, but it also comes with the caveat of fans losing interest as their fantasy teams do poorly.
There is no compelling reason to watch the games before the playoffs
This might be the single most important reason why interest is declining. The games simply are not memorable or noteworthy. I think the only game that people will have regretted missing this season was the Dallas Cowboys/ Philadelphia Eagles game and that was because of and excellent matchup in a close game by rookie quarterbacks who play in huge markets. The only major highlight in the last two year has basically been the catch by Odell Beckham and you can watch the highlights in many alternative forms instead of slogging through long, boring games to hopefully see a highlight. Want to see NFL players express some personality after scoring? Good luck as the No Fun League strictly enforces touchdown celebrations. Perhaps you want to watch the games to see some records broken this season. The closest record is the most touchdowns caught by a tight end with Antonio Gates expected to surpass Tony Gonzalez this season. It is highly unlikely that any single season records will be broken this year.
With so many teams soon to be out of playoff consideration, there is no real reason for fans to be engaged until the Wild Card round. Not while there as so many competing sports and real world issues to consider. The NHL has thrived being a niche sport which only attracts viewers during the playoffs and that has not hurt its brand.
The NFL needs to adjust their priorities and become a more wholesome, enjoyable league if they wish to reclaim their past glory.