NFL ratings decreased by eight percent between 2015 and 2016. The decline was furthered by another 9.7 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to Sports Illustrated. Many analysts believe that the NFL will surpass a 10 percent drop in ratings through the 2018 season. The major television programs for the National Football League, such as Sunday Night Football, experienced a decrease in viewership—from 20.3 to 18.2 million viewers–between 2016 and 2017. This begs the question: what is causing this significant problem for the NFL?
One major factor for the decrease in viewership of primetime football has been an increase in the popularity of NFL RedZone, a premium channel that switches between all live Sunday games. With no commercials and every game’s highlights shown at all times, RedZone is more entertaining for many football fans than watching a live game.
Another contributor to the decline in ratings and viewership is the increasing evidence and number of scientific studies demonstrating the neurological detriments caused by playing football. The popular 2015 film Concussion is based on a true story and examines the brain trauma caused by concussions in football. This film was a product of the popularity of this research and propelled the apprehensions about the dangers of football even further. According to a study by the National Federation of State High School Associations, high school football participation has decreased by 20 thousand players. The number of high school football players has decreased by 6.6 percent in just the past decade. Fewer and fewer young people are being exposed to and involved with football in recent years, significantly contributing to the decline in viewership for the NFL.
In addition to the neurological concerns, controversial refereeing calls caused by ambiguous rules, have contributed to the decrease in ratings. The ambiguity in what is considered “a catch” has caused upheaval among fans. Most notably is the famous Dez Bryant Catch in the 2014 Divisional Round of the playoffs when the Dallas Cowboys lost to the Green Bay Packers due to a reversed ruling by the officials. The referees ruled “no catch” and now the NFL Competition Committee has changed the ruling of what is considered a catch and is now in unanimous agreement that Bryant did indeed catch the ball. According to a September 2018 poll by SB Nation FanPulse, 21 percent of fans think that the “catch rule” is the league’s worst rule. However, the catch rule is not the most unpopular rule change among fans, as old-school fans have been especially angry about the new “helmet rule” which has resulted in more frequent penalties for hits that used to be considered legal. The fear of concussions has caused the league to feel this rule penalizing helmet to helmet contact is completely necessary. Although important for safety, this rule was not well-received by fans who miss the classic big hits. 48 percent of fans believe that this new helmet rule is the league’s worst rule. Pursuit of safe play will likely result in more game changes like this, further deterring seasoned followers of the league.
The National Anthem protests and President Trump’s response also resulted in boycotts by NFL fans. When Colin Kaepernick and other members of the San Francisco 49ers began kneeling for the National Anthem before games, President Trump argued team owners should fire the protesters. Additionally, NFL Commissioner Goodell imposed a rule forcing players to stand for the National Anthem. Many fans were infuriated on this denial of freedom of peaceful demonstrations. On the other hand, some fans boycotted games because they disagreed with the protests. A Seton Hall Sports Poll conducted by the Sharkey Institute, found that of fans who reported that they were watching fewer games, 52 percent said that it was because of the protests and six percent said that it was because of the NFL’s prevention of the protests. The buzz around the protests created a confluent formula causing the drastic decreases in NFL viewership and ratings over the past few years.
The NFL can solve their viewership issues with players and management working together to protect the league and prevent off-the-field issues. After the Lockout prior to the 2011 season, players and management have been on poor terms. The NFL cannot effectively monitor players’ off-the-field behavior and does not need to frequently broadcast off-the-field issues. Constant publicity and NFL media posts in the past few years about issues including deflate-gate, the National Anthem Protests and the criminal activity of popular players such as Ezekiel Elliott make the NFL much less appealing for fans to follow. More frequent meetings between league management and players that establish that everyone is working towards a common goal will help reestablish trust within the sport. If on-the-field antics and off-the-field issues decrease because of this change, the decline in ratings of NFL programs may slow.
The NFL must look to the sources of the issues that have caused the continuous decline in viewership over the past few years. Since getting league management and players back on the same page is of utmost importance, one strategy could be that players accept greater repercussions for off-the-field issues. While fines are in place to prevent in-game antics, a similar institution should be in place for off-the-field activity, ensuring players hold themselves to higher standards away from the sport in the same vein.