Over the past few years and carrying into the 2018-2019 season, the NFL has encountered major declines in both television ratings and viewership. While many point fingers at Colin Kaepernick and his protest of kneeling for the National Anthem as the main cause of this recent struggle, a multitude of factors have contributed to the issue.

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.

For the past few years, scientific journals have published studies about the brains of deceased professional athletes in contact sports. Particularly in the U.S., the focal point of this research has been American football, and the results are grim. Football is the most popular professional sports league in the world in terms of average attendance at games, and certainly the most popular league in America in terms of television ratings. The annual Super Bowl continues to top TV ratings as the most watched event in America, with the 2015 Super Bowl XLVIII breaking the record set the year before by attracting 114.5 million viewers. In football, concussions have been an obvious and growing concern over the past few decades, but more recently, the focus has shifted to a more long-term for of brain injury: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). According to the National Institute of Health, hallmarks of is neurodegenerative disease are cognitive dysfunction, behavioral changes, and altered motor function, with onset that can appear years after retirement from contact sports. Although CTE concerns are generally focused around football, is are also commonly seen in other sports with a high prevalence of head trauma, such as boxing, rugby, hockey, and even soccer (likely from athletes “heading” the ball). Brain damage, including CTE, as well as more immediately traumatic brain injury, is a critical concern that may be a factor in the future of professional sports in which these types of injury pose a significant risk.

With the advancement of technology has brought about further research into the brains of former NFL football athletes. Past players have often died prematurely from a neurodegenerative disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), stemming from frequent head trauma, and some have even committed suicide as a result. According to research from the American Medical Association performed on 111 brains of former football players, deaths from CTE and suicide are highly correlated.

The study conducted by the AMA in 2017 concluded that 110 of the 111 brains of former NFL players exhibited characteristics of CTE. These results have drastically increased national awareness of head trauma in football, and it has trickled down to the youth level. Many parents are now preventing their children from playing football, according to a New York Daily News article that s

We certainly know one thing about the revenue of the NFL: where football leads, television will follow. Investopedia states that almost two-thirds of league revenue comes from TV. This is exemplified by the finding that 44 of the top 100 rated television programs in 2017 were scheduled NFL games. Additionally, satellite providers such as DirecTV are getting in on the action by featuring cable sports packages. Technology companies like Amazon, Twitter and Facebook are also betting on football by offering streaming of games. However, the NFL has experienced a decline in television ratings over the past several years. Business Insider reported that the average viewership for regular season games fell from nearly 18 million in 2015 to 14.8 million in 2017. All in all, the NFL’s revenue seems to be shrinking and many worry that recent news about the danger of football is going to contribute to football becoming less popular.

However, despite this growing concern, the NFL likely has very little to worry about in light of mounting head trauma awareness, as the league will continue to thrive financially. Bringing in $14 billion this past season only corroborated league commissioner Roger Goodell’s prediction that the league would generate $25 billion annually by 2027. That machine is predicted to be firing on all cylinders as a result of hefty TV and internet streaming contracts, merchandise sales and ticket sales. The fans that have watched football and contributed to the sky-high television ratings will continue to do so, simply because television and internet streaming has made league games so accessible for public viewing amongst die-hard fans, casual daytime and primetime viewers and even those who are simply checking in on particular players on their fantasy football teams.

Another sport in which head injuries occur, particularly those with greater immediate damage than in football, is Formula 1 racing. To exemplify this, consider the fact that 32 drivers died during races between 1952 and 1970. It was not until 1994 after both Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger passed away at the San Marino Grand Prix that major adjustments were made to allow for safer driving. Since 1994, the only driver to have died is Jules Bianchi, who passed away in 2015 as a result of head injuries sustained in a crash during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. However, the sport still continues to be very dangerous. Financially, Formula 1 has thrived since the early 2000s, as revenue in 2011 for the F1 Group stood at $1.52 billion, more than doubling the $729 million stream in 2003. The money is often coming from similar sources as for the NFL, with Formula 1 earning revenue from sponsorships, race fees, corporate merchandising and, of course, television. It is clear that risk and popularity aren’t negatively correlated. In fact, the fact that Formula 1 is so dangerous likely contributed to its appeal and to its massive financial growth over the past few decades, and the same could be said of the NFL.

The safety of players is proclaimed to be a number one priority amongst football-promoting institutions, including the NFL. League rules have begun to affect calls made on the field to protect defenseless players from the types of hits that cause concussions and other brain trauma. However, the increasing national growth away from football is little more than a slight widespread “hesitation” to football’s commonplace head injuries, a national hesitation that is particularly dwarfed when viewed from the perspective of Goodell and NFL’s financial team. As long as loyal fans and regular viewers continue indulging in the excitement offered by the NFL’s product, money will stream in for the league.