It’s been an uncharacteristically rough couple years for the NFL. While the game’s popularity has surged ever higher year over year since the very first Super Bowl — and investments from sponsors and broadcasters have surged accordingly, the last half decade has told a different story off the field. The 24-hour news cycle has been largely unkind to “The Shield.”
In crises, the NFL’s default has long been to stay quiet and passive, a strategy with which the public has grown frustrated in light of domestic abuse scandals, uneven league discipline, and safety concerns (allegedly) swept under the rug at the risk of players’ long-term health. Meanwhile, the broadcast landscape is bending to a new generation’s viewing habits, and the NFL has gotten experimental to keep up — embracing Twitter and fantasy football wholeheartedly.
After a quarter of the way through the 2016-17 season, viewership is down 12%. Whether you believe the election, Colin Kaepernick, cord-cutting millennials, or a combination of the aforementioned factors are to blame, is there reason to believe we’ve reached “peak” NFL?
Yes, we’ve reached peak NFL.
Let’s be clear, even if this is the case it doesn’t mean football is going anywhere. The NFL will still be America’s standard for viewership for many years to come — it will still own a day of the week.
But even if it’s not set to plummet, the league’s popularity may have plateaued. In a recent Gallup poll, 54% of Americans claimed to be fans of the NFL. That doesn’t leave much room for growth, considering that only 60% of Americans claimed to be fans of sports at all. That means that nearly every American who watches live sports is already watching the NFL.
The cost of wooing the other 40% is high. They’ve seen the game and decided it’s not for them, and odds are that their exposure to the league in recent years has been negative. Since they don’t watch SportsCenter, the news they’ll have seen on CNN or 60 Minutes or the Times or E! (or anywhere, really) will not have been kind. The casual fan is not being won over.
As the current fan base ages, the league will have to work hard to replace the 70+% of fans over the age of 35. But at least so far, many of Generation Z — and a significant portion of millennials — are choosing to be NBA or MLS fans (seriously). For them, football may not offer the same wall-to-wall appeal that basketball and soccer do. After all, in a three-hour NFL broadcast, there are fewer than 15 minutes of actual gameplay.
Since the youngest of them are playing youth football at a rate 30% lower than even just five years ago, largely due to concussion concerns from their parents, there is a real question as to whether they’ll be fans of the game without ever having direct contact with it (no pun intended).
The NFL will be smart to focus its efforts in the next decades on fan outreach and retention — and undoing some of what has made it problematic in these past few years. Its growth strategy and trajectory of constantly improving viewership numbers is no longer achievable. Unless…
We haven’t reached peak NFL yet.
Even if league growth has stagnated domestically, the NFL’s popularity hasn’t peaked yet because the whole world is a growth market.
While every single American over the age of 18 has likely seen more than enough to decide whether or not they’re a fan, there are still many parts of the world where the game has an awareness problem. Unlike global sports, such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, tennis and golf, American football is simultaneously complicated and brutish, not to mention expensive to play and watch — and basically, still requires an investment of time and energy for developing interest in it.
But as a cultural export, the game is quite young. The NFL has only very recently assumed a role as ambassadors for the game, in the form of the International Series. This past weekend’s contest between the Jaguars and the Colts seemed like a success, at least according to league reports. The league has identified London as its first choice for international expansion, but more likely markets may exist.
For evidence, simply look at the top three countries (after the U.S., of course) in NFL fandom — Mexico, Brazil and Canada. What do they all have in common? They are developed nations with economies and governments similar to our own, and their time zones are favorable compared to ours.
Simply put, they can watch the NFL games live! For its part, Mexico will be rewarded this year with its own International Series game in Mexico City, the first NFL contest south of the border in over a decade.
Growing the game internationally may be as simple as making sure that people in the countries who want it, have it. We’ll get our first peek at what that looks like on Nov. 21 at Estadio Azteca. If the fan numbers are any indication, it will be a massive hit and will inform the shape of things to come surrounding America’s most popular game. Maybe a new “peak” will be created and/or reached, this time on a global basis for the NFL.