The NFL In 2025: Behemoth Or Niche Sport?

Mark Cuban caused a stir last March declaring the NFL would implode in 10 years. He was referring to the addition of Thursday night games and the over saturation of prime time action. He also criticized that so much of the popularity is tied to fantasy football, which has nothing to do with the actual game outcomes. Since March the league has absorbed a ton of bad press and seen it’s image tarnished by the stories around Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. Add their transgressions to Michael Vick’s and you have high profile stars that literally beat women, kids and dogs…and don’t forget former Patriot Aaron Hernandez’s murder trial is warming up for January. In fact, USA Todaytracks player arrests – 25 since the summer alone. Not to mention all the drug suspensions that no longer even raise eyebrows.

It appears the league has weathered the image crisis in addition to the Thursday night games being a disaster in terms of quality of play — a series of boring blowouts. However, people keep tuning in, and the ratings are strong. In fact, the NFL is most valuable property on network TV by a long shot. This fact speaks volumes about the dilution of mass audiences and the quality of network TV vs. cable and online options. While the league is riding high now, I’d argue it’s at the top of the arc and about to begin a slow decline to niche sport status in the U.S. The following builds a case for a booming business built on a shaky foundation:

Player safety: There is a clear link between the game and serious brain injury, this report from Frontline shows that nearly all of NFL players autopsied show brain damage. A few major implications from this scientific fact will affect the future of the game. More and more parents will not let their kids play a sport that will likely cause some lasting brain injury. The less kids play, the less chance they become fans in the future. And, the talent pool is depleted as they play other sports. Get ready for more profoundly sad stories like the one of former Bills player Darryl Tally. The players of my generation are now paying the price and the NFL does not seem to care very much. He is surviving on the generosity of his former teammates like Bruce Smith. Reading these stories makes it hard to watch a game, knowing the players are doing long-term damage to their health.

Quality of Play: In response to player safety and the desire to increase scoring for fantasy players, the game has changed dramatically. Teams are inconsistent, and games are full of poor tackling, endless mistakes/penalties and blowouts. Frankly, it is not worth three and half hours of my time as the networks cram more commercials and promos into the broadcasts. I can’t remember a time with more mediocre and bad teams. Much of this stems from a dearth of quality quarterbacks, by far the most important position in the game. There may be a dozen quality QBs in the 32-team league and almost all of them are over 30. Only a few QBs under 30 appear to be poised for a long successful career.

Competition: As a society we are moving into an era of micro interest and niche entertainment. Streaming video and other technologies has made it possible for gaming to become a spectator sport. Amazon has made a big bet on Twitch and younger generations may be watching other people play video games rather than watching other people play football or baseball. Not to mention the surging popularity of Soccer. This year’s World Cup ratings were up 39% in the U.S., a sign of things to come. Keep in mind football is totally an American game. There is virtually no global presence for growth and diversification. 

Right now, the most important thing the NFL has going for it (MLB and the NBA too) is the fact that live sports are the only thing keeping tens of millions of customers subscribing to cable and satellite. This is why the league reaps so much TV money. Live major sports are the only asset you can’t get by cord cutting. I’d go so far to say that sports, mostly the NFL, is keeping the cable/broadcast bundle alive while virtually all other media models have been blown apart by digital disruption. Does anyone believe that the bundle will be still going strong in 2025? When that breaks, the money goes with it and societal change will drastically reduce the place football holds in America for share of entertainment time and dollar. Can’t happen? Look at the decline in horse racing and how interest in boxing has been replaced by the younger generation’s fascination with mixed martial arts (MMA). When it comes to the NFL in 2025, I’m betting the under.

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