The ratings decline was particularly severe in the beginning of the season, when viewing was down by double-digit percentages. Everyone had an opinion on this phenomenon, my own being that it was caused by an oversaturation of football, a lot of mediocre games, and a lack of positive story lines following the retirement of Peyton Manning, the suspension of Tom Brady and the underwhelming performance of other high-profile quarterbacks.
Of course anything as highly visible as pro football quickly becomes a huge target upon which we act out our personal obsessions, and in a white hot election year, the NFL quickly became tangled up in the political correctness debate, thanks to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem.
I don’t think that the Kaepernick controversy actually eroded football viewing, but it significantly infuriated many of the game’s most important constituencies and wiped out decades of effort by the league to wrap itself in the flag. It got to a point where the right-wing Drudge Report was actively gloating each week about low NFL ratings. When a lot of conservative white guys are actively rooting for your ratings to go down, you’re in a bad place if you’re a major sports league.
For its part, the NFL tried to blame the ratings slump on the election, the theory being, I suppose, that fans were out attending Donald Trump rallies on Sundays instead of staying home to watch football. They claimed vindication of a sorts when it turned out that ratings were “only” down 2% in the six weeks after the election. (Personally I think that it wasn’t until the final third of the season that the interesting storylines emerged.)
Better still for the NFL have been the playoffs. When there was a good game, fans watched. When the games stunk, they didn’t. For example, the thrilling Cowboys-Packers game on Jan. 15, featuring two high-profile quarterbacks and a down-to-the-wire victory, was the most-watched NFL divisional playoff game ever.
For me, though, the relevant question is not why football ratings slumped this year — but why they’ve been soaring for the past few years in the first place? In the last decade, football went from being a very popular sport to a hugely popular one. For years and years, the final episode of “M.A.S.H.” reigned supreme as the most-watched broadcast of all time, but since 2010 the Super Bowl has broken that record seven straight times.
And what’s particularly surprising about this rise in popularity is that it occurred just as we were coming to terms with the human cost of the concussions and other injuries inflicted on the players for our enjoyment. Far from being turned off by literally watching fellow human beings beat their brains to mush, the American public actually embraced the sport even more enthusiastically.
For football to become more popular, it had to expand its appeal beyond existing fans and convert casual viewers to regular ones. It was able to do this via the rise in fantasy sports and online gambling, which gave fans a reason to watch more games with more intensity. Even more important was the emergence of a new generation of charismatic quarterbacks who became the face of the league in the same way that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan revived the fortunes of the NBA in the 1980s.
In other words, the biggest threat to football’s long-term health isn’t cord-cutting, but the poor quality of quarterbacks coming out of college. Because college football is increasingly dominated by spread offenses and no-huddle play, recent QB prospects are not prepared to lead an NFL offense. With Manning retired and Brady, Aaron Rogers, Tony Romo and Drew Brees growing long in the tooth, the NFL has been unable to nurture a new generation of appealing superstars.
There will be one more chance to check in on the health of the NFL this year. If the Super Bowl sets yet another record for viewership this year, the league will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that football remains hugely popular despite the hiccups in the beginning of the season. And with much of the nation wondering whether Tom Brady will be in a position to smash the Lombardi trophy into the face of Commissioner Roger Goodell, that just might happen.