Is the NFL in a death spiral?

Once thought unkillable, has the NFL passed its expiration date?

The National Football League makes more money than God. The league even makes more money than Roger Goodell. It remains the United States of America’s most popular sport. As one of the most successful entertainment enterprises in history, the NFL is an unparalleled pop culture phenomenon.

But the ink is starting to run dry in the NFL’s money-printing machine. TV broadcasters, the NFL’s deepest pocketed underwriter, are experiencing consistent drops in televised audience attendance. Smaller audiences mean fewer trucks, beer, insurance and malady-of-the-month pills sold. That means these industries pay less for TV ads, which means less money for the networks to fling at the NFL.

There is no greater sign of the decline of a sports league than having to take less money from TV at contract negotiation time. Is this where the NFL is headed? Let’s examine the reasons why.

The No Fun League

Are you enjoying the game as much as you used to? Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio recently wrote in his article Why is TV viewership down?, “Fewer people are watching the NFL on TV, and no one really knows why.” Well, maybe he didn’t ask the right people.

The product, well, uh, sometimes sucks. Said in response to Thursday Night Football’s contest between the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers — a scoreless game after one quarter that should actually be flagged for ineptitude: dropped passes, wildly off-target passes, penalties, short gains on third down … and a whole lot of punts.

Even the highly paid broadcasters and other sports journalists can’t withhold their snark about the quality of the games:

Calling Levi’s Stadium “half-empty” during the Oct. 6 game was being charitable. This was one of the more densely populated sections the camera guys could find:

Those aren’t empty seats. They’re York family tears cleverly disguised.

Using their heads

It’s not just the on-field product. The specter of concussions cast a pall on every game. After years of pressure, the NFL’s medical expert, NFL Vice President for Health and Safety Jeff Miller, finally admitted earlier this year that there is a link between concussions and cognitive traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

NFL players, young and old, are retiring from the NFL either with brain trauma or pre-emptively to avoid lifelong debilitating poor health. Former NFL gladiators of yore are suing the NFL over the damage done by the brain trauma the NFL has only recently acknowledged, and over health care in general.

Prepare to feel sad and guilty. What has happened to Tre Mason, Bruce Miller, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, Mike Webster and hundreds of others is tragic on a grand scale. It is no longer possible to ignore the lasting, catastrophic damage done by repeated blows to the head. No, the NFL is not alone among sports that cause this kind of damage. It’s just the one making the most money off of it.

Gambling

Gambling isn’t helping, either. I’m not talking about traditional gambling in casino sports books around the country (and world-wide). I’m talking about the past two years of explosive fantasy football growth in the form of daily fantasy sports.

“You don’t move backwards in life. Only forward!”— said by the DFS spokesman (FanDuel) who is being pushed backward while he yells at the audience. Those immortal words, and their relative infrequency in this year’s NFL advertising schedule, are actually a welcome relief from the non-stop onslaught of advertising overkill. Because it was worse in 2015.

Last year, you couldn’t avoid a DFS ad if you tried:

In 2015, the spending was immense:

This year? Not so much. If you’re wondering why, it’s not because they grew tired of taking your money. They got their hands caught in the cookie jar.

Also to be filed under “not a good look.” That DFS was exposed as a gambling scheme dominated by insiders with access to all the meta data, while the rest of the millions of suckers paid in with little chance of reaping any rewards, kinda dampens one’s enthusiasm for playing along.

That and the legality of it all. If you want to play DFS, you can. Or maybe not. It depends on where you live. To help the gambling degenera-, I mean, football fans keep track of whether it’s legal or not today in your state, ESPN has developed this handy tracker: Daily fantasy sports state-by-state tracker.

Fantasy football, even during its older, “just for funsies” state, still has re-directed a generation of football fans away from staunchly rooting for a particular team’s laundry to rooting for an arbitrarily assembled, motley collection of individuals for the purposes of besting someone else’s motley collection of individuals. The NFL dragged its feet in embracing fantasy football. In recent years, it jumped on the bandwagon in full exploitation mode. Now, the NFL must deal with the consequence: fans don’t care about the NFL’s teams. They care about their own teams.

Buenos dias

The NFL’s forays into foreign territory may appear like a great way to expand their audience. To the core American audience, it represents little less than an annoyance — except to ticket-buying patrons that have to sacrifice a home game to their favorite team as it travels to London (weeks four, seven and eight) or Mexico City (week 11). To them, it’s one less home game out of the eight they get every year. It devalues their season ticket purchases and personal seat license fees.

From a competitive standpoint, it lessens the home-field advantage teams enjoy because they become a road team. That’s not insignificant. There is only one team that voluntarily travels to London: the Jacksonville Jaguars. Why? They can’t sell out their own stadium. Their goal is to expand their audience and snare the London football fans before a better team does. The only problem is, they’re not very good. They usually lose — in London and elsewhere.

They won this year in week four against the equally floundering Indianapolis Colts, but the product being pushed at the English crowd continues to be a dismal lineup of at least one losing team playing another. In fact, in the entire history of the NFL in London series, no game has featured two teams above .500.

The good teams don’t want to go. No team, outside of the Jaguars, is voluntarily willing to give up a home game for monetary and competitive reasons. The travel is a pain in the ass. For West coast teams, it’s brutal. The Los Angeles Rams are going, however. The reason? They got strong-armed into it. You want to relocate to LA, Rams organization? Then you’re going to agree to give up a home game and go to London.

When the advent of the NFL’s International Series is nothing less than a bummer for teams and fans, and proffers only the worst product available for newcomers, who is benefiting?

Stupid question, I know. It’s the NFL owners. But not for long. The new suckers will catch on … at the same time as the NFL sees the erosion of its core U.S. audience.

moneymoneymoneymoneymoney

Who can afford to go to an NFL game anymore? I’ll tell you someone who can’t: me. Is it because I’m poor? In the eyes of the NFL, I guess I am. In actuality, between my wife and I we gross about a quarter of a million dollars a year. Do you know what is at the top of our list of things we cannot afford? NFL game tickets. And I’m not some casual fan.

It’s not just as simple as the cost/benefit analysis we and millions of other football followers make. The NFL, through its escalating costs, has irreversibly altered the core of its fans that can attend its games.

Ask the Bay Area 49ers fans who used to be able to afford the occasional ticket to Candlestick, but now can only watch their (currently hapless) team on TV. The new stadium in Santa Clara is very nice. It’s also mostly populated by the rich Silicon Valley tech winners … and fans of opposing teams.

That’s right. The astronomical expense of season tickets plus personal seat licenses for your NFL team’s home games demand that you resell some, if not most, of your tickets to recoup your outlay. To do that, you’re going to sell to the highest bidder. Often, that’s fans of visiting teams. It’s not just in San Francisco, either. Ask the New York Giants & Jets fans how they afford their tickets to Metlife Stadium. Ditto for Cowboys fans at AT&T Stadium. And soon to be shaking down Los Angeles area fans for Stan Kroenke’s new stadium palace.

Go to a Seattle Seahawks game at CenturyLink Field. If you can afford it. When I lived in the Seattle area, I attended several (years ago). One time, I went to a game courtesy of a friend’s season tickets. He barely cares about the Seahawks. Or team sports in general. But he’s got season tickets because he’s a partner in a local law firm. They buy the tix to treat important clients or occasionally reward employees. Those are your fans, NFL. The die-hards are dying off, because your hand is on their back pushing them out the door. But the looky-loos will show up, when gifted.

So there you have it. Today’s NFL stadium attendee mix is made up mostly of the wealthy (who probably do not live & die by their team’s fortunes) and the die-hard followers of your opponents. Loyalty, schmoyalty. The NFL traded it for filthy lucre. For now.

Google “Levi’s stadium half empty” and you’ll see a list of articles detailing the lack of attendance at most of the 49ers’ home games since the debut of the venue in 2014. How long can the 49ers and the NFL keep that up?

Other notable NFL bummers

  • Deflategate.
    Tom Brady is back now. We think it’s over. It’s not.
  • The Washington Redskins’ offensive name controversy.
  • The NFL’s response to domestic violence perpetrators.
    Can you help my team? Then, hey, everyone deserves a second (or third or fourth) chance. Are you marginal? Well then, get lost, you dangerous societal miscreant.
  • The National Anthem controversy.
    Do NFL athletes have the right to voice protests in NFL stadiums? Yes, they do. Is it making people cranky? Yes, it is.
  • Performance enhancing drug suspensions.
  • Recreational drug suspensions.
  • Inequity among the application of NFL penalties.
    To wit:
Oct. 2, 2016

This full-speed helmet-to-helmet hit between safety Calvin Pryor and receiver Doug Baldwin, which took Baldwin off the field for a time (and miraculously wasn’t much worse), is penalized exactly the same amount (15 yards) as when a player spins the football on the ground in the vicinity of an opposing player. Also the same as if an NFL player for one team says something unkind toward a player of another team and said sticks/stones are overheard by an official.

  • “Nobody knows what a catch is anymore.”
    Actually, we do. But I’m in the minority when it comes to understanding and accepting the NFL’s current rule on what constitutes a catch. I’ve watched the rule applied both for and against the team I root for and accept the application of the rule. It works. But I may be alone in thinking that. For apparently millions of NFL fans, broadcasters, players and coaches, the NFL’s definition of a catch is a major source of irritation.
  • Just put skirts on ’em.
    Ah, yes. This is an oldie but a goodie. You don’t hear it as much anymore as the threat of debilitating concussions and other ghastly injuries that occur in the regular doing of business that is NFL-level football play, but there are still a vocal number of football nimrods who think the NFL has become too wussified. Those Pro Football Talk commenters have also probably never been on an NFL or major college football sideline while a game was going on. I have. The speed and violence of the game is almost incalculably more ferocious than it appears from the stands or your mom’s basement couch. The NFL doesn’t need to loosen the rules and make it a man’s game again. It’s greatest threat is that the players’ ability to destroy each other is now so great that such actions threaten to destroy the game itself.
  • Instant replay.
    To know football is to know the pain of having to live with a bad penalty call. The NFL continues to drag its feet when it comes to applying technology toward getting calls right. Fans, coaches and players continue to be vexed by the inability to apply state-of-the-art technology to assure every call is right. Some errors get fixed. Others stay broken, despite evidence to the contrary.

© Julian Rogers

Julian Rogers is the editor and publisher of The Hit Job, Marketing Communications Leadership and is the owner of Juju Eye Communications.

Also in The Hit Job