There has been a lot of hand-wringing and political posturing trying to find scapegoats (and clicks!) in the immediate moment for the NFL’s accelerating implosion. But I've never been a fan of scapegoats.
The truth: There are a multitude of macro-societal changes in American culture causing people to shrug off football in general and the NFL in particular. It has peaked, and now we’re seeing the beginning of a long, downward slide.
Like any kind of relationship that ends, it’s never any one thing. It’s a bunch of things that build and fester until the breakup arrives. Sometimes, there’s a final inflection point, but it’s only the last straw, not a sudden bullet to the head of the camel.
First, there’s just the general collective sense the NFL's made a mess of itself by refusing to sincerely address its problems.
Brain and body damage to players, criminality and violence against women (and children!), a clown CEO, games that drag on forever and have too many commercials, questionable calls that alter game results. And now, the players' polarizing national anthem protests.
Yet even beyond the NFL’s foundational problems, which it refuses to address beyond lipstick-meet-pig solutions, there are larger and intractable forces at play.
Cord-cutting is a big one. Everybody knows the only thing keeping television tethered to some semblance of what it used to be in the ad world is live programming — and the NFL was more reliable for that than anything else on TV.
But now people are dumping cable and satellite dishes in ever-increasing numbers. ESPN lost 15K subscribers per day in October, and a third round of layoffs is on the horizon.
What this suggests is that the cable/dish boom and unlimited access to all professional games via Sunday Ticket created a bubble of demand, and that bubble’s popped. There’s been so much football it’s become too much football — especially when you add up all the repetitive ads that accompany it.
But for the hard-core fans, the NFL Network’s own “Red Zone” programming — commercial-free, quick cuts around the league of scoring, drives inside the 20-yard line, big plays — has been self-defeating. It reminds people how slooooow football really is — 11 minutes of actual play time in a three-hour broadcast, according to The Wall Street Journal.
And there are too many commercials.
Another blow has been the law-of-diminishing returns when it comes to new stadiums. Just about the same time cable TV was taking off, a lot of NFL teams got new state-of-the-art stadiums. They were a big deal, and everybody wanted to go.
Now, after a couple of decades, people have begun to realize a new stadium is a scam. It rewards the team owners and the league, but not the city or the citizens. Moreover, the experience of going to the stadium stinks — the “bag ban,” the price of food/drinks, the amount of time it takes to get in and out of the place.
Sports culture changed with the influx of cable television and new stadiums, but now culture is moving away from both. They were fresh ideas and cool, now they’re not. And neither is the NFL.
The collapse of the NFL is hardly unprecedented among popular sports once beloved by Baby Boomers. Tennis, for example, used to be a bigger deal. Billy Jean King/Bobby Riggs put it on the map, but then there was Borg, McEnroe, Agassi — all major names, all big cultural stars. Boomers were young enough to play tennis, so they watched tennis on TV, too.
Then, as Boomers got older and slower, they moved on to playing golf. Tennis ratings collapsed--the Williams sisters are the last of the tennis Gods, and their days are numbered--and golf took off on TV, with Tiger Woods at the fore. But now the Boomers are getting too old for golf, and it has fallen into decline, with courses closing and ratings tumbling.
Because it’s been such a blend of a bunch of different cultural, societal and self-inflicted elements, I don’t see how the NFL recovers. The rejection will more likely quicken, as it becomes uncool to support football for any of the many reasons cited earlier.
It’s just a matter of time before the anarchic autists of 4chan create and disseminate a #BoycottBowl hashtag for some year’s Super Bowl. Then we’ll see if even the NFL’s crown jewel gets tarnished.
When that happens — and it will, and maybe soon — then we’ll know the NFL has lost its invulnerability. Then maybe, just maybe, they’ll let down the shield and try to address the multitude of problems facing the sport.
But by then, it will be too late. Because it’s already too late now.