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Have We Passed Peak NFL?

I’m sure you are aware of the big news story that gripped the nation last fall: The NFL’s TV ratings were down! You might also have heard that the Super Bowl has finally passed us. I won’t tell you how it turned out, so as not to spoil it should have DVR’ed it. But the important thing is that it too saw lower ratings. This raises the question, have we passed peak NFL?

This year’s Super Bowl had the lowest viewership since 2013, and was about 6 percent below last year’s. Overall ratings for the entire season are down about 9 percent. What’s up with this? The commentariat has not been shy about offering its opinions. I won’t even try to make a comprehensive review, because life is short. What I find interesting about the various explanations is that they all point to the NFL, while not being precisely screwed, having peaked.

For example, one explanation is over-exposure. Remember that balmy summer of 1999 when ABC tossed out a cheap and cheesy summer time-filler game show called Who Wants to be a Millionaire? To everyone’s surprise, it was wildly popular. ABC responded by converting the entire network into WWtbaM every day, all day. OK, not really. But not by nearly as great an exaggeration as it would have been, had the network executives a lick of sense. The entirely predictable result was that the show’s popularity crashed and burned. ABC dropped the show, though it survives in the shadowlands that are syndicated television. Getting back to the NFL, the idea is that the same thing has happened. We have not only the early and late Sunday afternoon games, as ordained by God in His Heavens, but Sunday night, Monday night, and Thursday night games. This is too much of a good thing, and people tune out. Or so the theory goes. People are being trained to not bother watching NFL games. The NFL could dial it back some, but is the problem too much NFL, or too much football? College games are now omnipresent during the season, and the NFL has no control over that. To the extent that football fans watch both professional and college ball–and this extent is large–this problem is unsolvable.

The explanation I personally favor, at least as an underlying cause, is even worse for the NFL: Those Kids Nowadays and their changing viewing habits. The idea of watching a show when some network thinks you should just seems weird. It even seems weird to me, and I grew up in a society where planning your evenings around the TV schedule was perfectly normal. Then came VCRs. We could use them to timeshift, but the user interface was horrible, as was the playback quality. We only actually timeshifted shows if really motivated. In practice the network schedules still dominated. Then came DVRs. And then streaming. At this point, it simply doesn’t occur to me to wonder what is on TV. And that is before we even discuss cord-cutting.

For years, live sports was the great bulwark against changing viewing habits. People still wanted to see the games live, which meant that those luscious, beautiful commercials still played with people still at least theoretically watching them. But is this still true? It’s not just the NFL. Last summer’s Olympic Games ratings were down, too, garnering a different set of explanations. But perhaps the underlying issue is that people less and less think in terms of “Oh, it’s eight o’clock. Quick! Turn on the TV!”

49ers-bills-footballOther explanations for the NFL ratings include lack of star power with compelling marketable storylines; poor quality of play and/or officiating; concern over head trauma; etc. My personal favorite is the Colin Kaepernick theory: that while we have reconciled ourselves to Those People playing in the NFL, and even, albeit reluctantly, to Those People playing the positions where you have to be smart, this is tolerably only so long as Those People keep in their place. As soon as they get uppity, we’re out of here. I personally doubt more than three people actually stopped watching games because of this, but it is popular to claim to have in comment threads. Perhaps the most favorable explanation is the too damn many commercials theory. This is favorable, in that it is within the NFL’s control. They can, if this is indeed the driving force, figure out the number of commercials to maximize revenues, and go with that.

All of these explanations tell us, however, that the NFL has reached the limits of how many people are dedicated, or even interested. They have the core fans–the guys who paint their bodies in their team colors. Those guys aren’t going anywhere. But around this core is a series of concentric rings of people, growing less and less interested as you move outward. Whatever the explanation, we have reached the point where people might be willing to tune in, but it doesn’t take much to distract them. And this is nothing if not the age of distractions.

Which brings us to the NFL’s favored quasi-official explanation: that ratings were down because people were engrossed by the election campaign. This is the favored explanation because it has nothing to do with anything the NFL did or did not do, and therefore no one should be fired. And surprisingly, there is reason to believe it is partially true. Ratings improved after the election, from disastrous to merely bad. While overall ratings are down about 9 percent, if you just look at after the election they are down only 6 percent. Left unspoken is that had the ratings been down 6 percent throughout the season, we would still be having this discussion, and the NFL executives would still be wringing their hands,

OK, so the election distracted people. But then a lot of them stayed distracted. Spectator sports rely on a collective fiction: the fiction that they matter. I have the sports gene. I get it. I have been through championship seasons. The communal elation is amazing. You know things are heating up with the announcers on the classical music station start getting giddy, and scores are announced between pieces at the symphony. I’ve been through that, at is a great! But I also know that it doesn’t really matter. Win the championship and everyone is happy and the city shuts down for the victory parade. Lose the championship and everyone is sad and we stand around bitching about it. Either way, this is for a few days, then life is back to normal. And either way, it is easy to opt out of the whole thing. It is harder if your city’s team is on a championship run, but statistically speaking, it probably isn’t. And if it is this year, next year it probably won’t be. There will always been opportunities to opt out.

A bunch of people got distracted last fall. Then a lot of them went back to watching games. But then again, a lot of them didn’t. Maybe they will next year, and 2016 will be a mere blip. But I don’t think so. I think that those people who didn’t go back discovered that they were perfectly happy with life without the NFL. No, they weren’t the dedicated fans, or anything like the dedicated fans. They were in that outer circle of casual fans. But they were part of the collective fiction. With them gone, the fiction becomes a bit harder for the rest of us to sustain.

I am not predicting a collapse. I’m not sure I am even predicting a long, slow decline. The NFL’s marketing savvy is undeniable. I won’t be surprised if they are able to pull it together and regain stability. But the eternal upward march to a glorious NFL future? I think that is over; that we have reached peak NFL.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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127 thoughts on “Have We Passed Peak NFL?

  1. Do you have any stats on the total number of minutes of commercials over the last 20 years or so? It certainly seems to me that football (and baseball and basketball) take much longer than they used to.

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  2. – People watch sports differently now. People used to follow teams more, but now they follow their own fantasy team. It detaches the viewer from a loyalty to a particular franchise.

    – NFL viewership among women has been steadily increasing. If total viewership is leveling off or down, then that would indicate that they’ve been losing male viewers for a while. I don’t have any theory about that, but it seems worth noting.

    – The NFL and college football used to be complementary products. Following one would encourage you to follow the other. As the number of televised games has increased (skyrocketed, really), they’ve become more like competitors.

    – Don’t discount the Kaepernick theory, or the bad blood from the Rams or Chargers moves, or the bad blood over innumerable other things. Sports fans are passionate, and they cherish their grievances.

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  3. A couple of Patriots, true Patriots i might add, have said they will refuse to meet with Trump. That should provide a lot of fuel to the fires of the people who were PO’d over Colin K.

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    • I dunno. It wouldn’t bother me if a player didn’t attend. No one died on a battlefield in defense of the president meeting championship teams. And anyway, passive protest (not showing up) is always going to be less of a story than active protest (kneeling in front of 80,000 people). Now, if they showed up and knelt on the president, that’d be a bigger story.

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  4. This year the Superbowl tickets cost $5,000 (dropped $2000 when the Steelers lost, and dropped more afterwards).
    The last time the Superbowl had the Steelers in it, they cost $18,000. Apiece.

    Judging by the Patriots versus the Falcons may not be the best time to judge.

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  5. I love how you point to streaming, and how that makes the idea of organizing your life around the TV schedule kind of quaint. I watch more video than I have in years these days, but it’s all streaming, and done when I find it convenient. After all, it’s entertainment, right? And that means it’s at my own pleasure.

    I can’t tell you when the last time I sat down and watched a football game in its entirety was. I’m more of a baseball fan. We go to games, that’s fun. But we don’t often watch them these days.

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  6. As the resident non-sports guy, all sports seasons seem much longer than when I was a kid. I remember the World Series being in early October and now it can be in November. Football is also longer.

    The NFL also seems like the most openly cartel line of all the professional sports and the most resistant to reform.

    Then there is the concussion and brain damage issue which might make parents more hesitant to let their kids play and watch.

    But I am really not a sports guy. The whole sports gene passed me by.

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  7. A twist on the Kaepernick theory:

    My dad actually did stop watching NFL because of the Kaepernick thing. I think people may be trying to put a racial spin on this when in reality for some people it’s something else entirely.

    My grandfather died in WW2 when my dad was in his mother’s womb. He grew up never knowing his dad and he feels that it was a sacrifice our entire family made for our country. So to him, some spoiled football punk with all the privileges in the world, in part because men like my grandfather fought and died for it, refusing to stand for the flag, to him feels really, really not so hot.

    He would feel the same way regardless of the race of the guy or the reasons why. It’s because he believes in this idea that the flag represents something important and that important thing was what his father gave up his life for. He’s in a club with a bunch of other war orphans and they were all boycotting the NFL for this reason. It hurt their feelings, it made them feel like the NFL didn’t care about their values or viewership, and I can imagine that anyone who ever felt like they’d made a sacrifice for what the flag represents may share similar sentiments.

    He still watches college football as rabidly as ever though.

    I understand where he’s coming from, I understand where Kaepernick is coming from and where the NFL is coming from too. One of those weird things where everyone’s positions makes sense.

    I love football, but then again I almost always play video games while I watch it. The commercial thing does grate on ya after a while.

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    • OK, stipulating to this fact set, this means that your dad was prepared to give up the NFL because of something someone did that doesn’t actually affect his viewing experience. You literally wrote “It hurt his feelings.” If hurt feelings will drive people away, the NFL has a long-term problem.

      I wonder if the NFL’s history of wrapping itself in the flag isn’t a factor here too. That is so much a part of the NFL’s image that a player taking a knee during the anthem becomes a huge deal.

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      • That’s a fact. The NFL = ‘Murica thing is now coming back to haunt them. Now anything short of a bald eagle wrapped in a flag singing Toby Keith songs will appear to some like they’re caving in to social pressures. The NFL literally cannot make everyone happy with any tactic they take in the Kaepernick situation. They’re really between a rock and a hard place on this. No matter what they did or do in the future, a good percentage of viewers will be put off by it.

        I think it’s way too much to ask the NFL to police their players’ behavior that heavily. It’s unfair for anyone to expect that the NFL force their players to perform patriotic rituals for the American public – and I’d go so far as to call it unAmerican, in a way. It’s unpatriotic in a different and much more serious way than taking a knee for the anthem is.

        Then again, the NFL has no qualms about policing Marshawn Lynch for using Beats by Dre headphones.

        So it’s as if the NFL has put themselves in an impossible position of trying to appeal to mom-and-apple-pie patriotism and (I personally believe rightfully) backing down over Kaepernick, while at the same time using their power over their players in relatively shallow and arbitrary ways. Even though I understand their position on that too – guy signed a contract, and all that.

        The NFL almost seems like its own worst enemy sometimes.

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    • I don’t know anyone who views Kaepernick’s actions through the lens of race.

      (ETA – to Kristin and Duck – I didn’t even notice that the article tried to make that claim. Funny. My brain now completely filters out silly allegations of racism.)

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        • How about “I don’t know anyone who is capable of viewing things other than through the lens of race who…”. But then again, I’ve never heard an anti-black bigot bring up Kaepernick.

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          • I’ve never heard an anti-black bigot bring up Kaepernick.

            You should visit my local bars then. I heard a lot of “ungrateful n-word” comments when he was on the screen.

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          • Maybe this is a really important distinction that I’m making. If you look at everything that people say is about race and you believe they’re all about race, then you’ll go crazy with all the racism you see around you. If you look at all the things that people say are about race and believe that most of it is their own pre-judging, then you’ll have a very different outlook. I may have just described the biggest division in our country.

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          • “bad data”?

            Like Kapernick was completely agnostic about race and the criminal justice system, then one day he read an article with faulty data, and changed his mind?

            Like that?

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      • I don’t know anyone who views Kaepernick’s actions through the lens of race.

        Either you don’t know enough people, or you don’t know the people you know as well as you think.

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  8. “Those People”

    um

    Colin Kapernick is not an enjoyable player to watch.

    But keep telling me how it’s all about racism, bro.

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    • I don’t know how you could tell what race a player is, anyway. They wear helmets. I don’t watch interviews with athletes, because they’re all terrible. I guess you could look at their forearms if they’re not covered, but I never think to do that. And anyway, I sometimes listen to games on the radio.

      And I’m not just saying that. This article got me curious, so I looked up black quarterbacks, and just now learned that Jacoby Brissett is black. I picked him in a mock draft last year. My notes say “short passes – possible upside”. I didn’t watch any of his college tape, but the scouts made it sound like he’s got potential, and I wasn’t impressed with the rest of the draft class in that position. I don’t know what color the other guys were either.

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          • We don’t just look at the forearms. A good bit of the time, they have their helmets off, or you can see their faces, or you might actually know who the f**k they are and some facts about them. Third-string QBs on a team where the starter doesn’t miss games and you’ve never seen them play, and nobody writes about them — I’m talking about you, Jacoby Brisette — are under the radar, so you damn well wouldn’t know what race they are and really shouldn’t care, but if you watch the damn game when they play, you can usually tell — even if you don’t care.

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            • The facts about a player? They include physical stats (height, weight, speed, etc.), college stats, NFL stats, salary stats. There are also intangibles, like intelligence, leadership, and reaction under pressure. You sometimes hear good stories about their off-the-field behavior (say, charity work), and sometimes bad stories (arrests and such).

              There is one group of people who really pay attention to players’ skin color: blacks. I live in the DC area, and the RG3 / Cousins debate has made me sick. It split pretty much between people who wanted a good solid quarterback and racists.

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              • Are you under the impression that you have to “really pay attention” to see what is literally in front of your face if you watch the damn game, even if you don’t care about it, or that there is some kind of virtue in pretending you don’t notice what most people, who do notice, consider an obvious and innocuous fact?

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                    • do you think there are a lot of liberals who have spent more time watching Colbert than listening to actual conservatives?

                      I don’t doubt it in the least. I similarly don’t doubt that there are a lot of conservatives who have spent more time watching Fox News than listening to actual liberals. This observation is unsurprising.

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                      • I think it’s very interesting. I spend time on sites like this in order to hear all sides. There’s an insularity among liberals that I never understood. A reasonable debate begins with both sides saying what they believe. I may tell a liberal what I believe, but a liberal will tell me what I believe. I’ve never understood that. I think that a part of the problem (up until maybe 20 years ago) was that liberals aren’t exposed to both sides. They would read the WaPo and think that covered everything. The conservative would pick up the Post and National Review. That may be why Haidt shows that conservatives can understand both points of view much more readily than liberals can.

                        Now, anyone who’s been around for the last couple of decades has to have notice the decline in broad thinking. With Fox News around, it’s possible for a conservative to be in a bubble now too.

                        Anyway, I got off the point a bit there. I don’t see a lot of conservatives pretending to be liberals on Fox News, leaving viewers to think that they’ve heard both sides. Instead they have liberals who get interrupted right away. Liberal news outlets still don’t have conservatives, but watching Colbert might have left a lot of liberals thinking that they’d heard conservative thought.

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                        • MSNBC has Hugh Hewitt, Michael Steele, Nicole Wallace, Ben Ginsberg, Mike Murphy, and Steve Schmidt. Joe Scarborough may not have been the most conservative Republican in Congress (according to Wikipedia he was only rated 95 out of 100 by the American Conservative Union), but he was no Democrat and was a part of the Newt Gingrich/Contract With America crowd when he served there. I don’t find Greta van Susteren particularly left-leaning, myself.

                          Yet MSNBC is generally considered the most liberal of the three major cable news outlets, despite the prominent presence of so many right-leaning voices. I guess Rachael Maddow is just so charismatic that she overshadows all of her right-leaning colleagues.

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                        • I don’t see a lot of conservatives pretending to be liberals on Fox News

                          Back in the day, at least, they had the sacrificial nominal liberal, with the designated role of being overwhelmed. It was never clear to me what, if any, position the individual actually held. It might have been ineffectual sincerity, or it might have been all the authenticity of a WWE feud.

                          Liberal news outlets still don’t have conservatives

                          Ahem

                          but watching Colbert might have left a lot of liberals thinking that they’d heard conservative thought.

                          I have never come across a liberal who didn’t understand that Colbert was doing satire. I have, however, come across conservatives who didn’t. I heard Colbert praised for bringing balance to the Comedy Central lineup. Recall that back in the day, there were people who crowed about the compelling arguments made by Archie Bunker.

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                        • I don’t know about other liberals, , but I came to my conclusions about the conservative base of the GOP by reading the comments at The National Review, The Federalist, and various other conservative sites since 2004 or so.

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                • I don’t notice race when watching football. That’s not because it’s a virtue not to notice it. I don’t notice it. Why does it bother you so much to think that someone somewhere doesn’t notice it?

                  I assure you that I notice race sometimes. As I noted above, it stands out when you hear black Redskins fans defending RG3. I’m capable of noticing patterns.

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  9. This year’s Super Bowl had the lowest viewership since 2013, and was about 6 percent below last year’s.

    This is the fault of the bookers.
    Everybody hates the Patriots (and not even in a “it’s fun to hate the Patriots” way) and nobody gives a damn about the Falcons one way or the other.

    You put the Broncos vs. the Packers in there? You’d be writing about the highest Superbowl ratings ever.

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      • Man, now I’m going to have to actually think.

        I’m not, particularly, a football fan (I google the games and outcomes that I might have conversations at work with co-workers for whom the games are important) but I remember that, at the time of one of the major shootings in the US, I was playing Uncharted 3. After a day or so of digesting absolutely horrible news, I went back to playing this level in the game in which I was shooting people about every 4 seconds or so.

        I lost my taste for the game and put it away.

        I think that the concussion thing nudged a bunch of people into “eh, let’s just go to the store… I’ll google the game.”

        The Kaepernick thing had an impact as well… but I don’t think it was because “those people” were playing, but because we had yet another arena of “leisure” that was morphing into an arena of “Social Consciousness”.

        If you just wanted to sit down, watch a game, not think about the week behind or the week ahead… well, football wasn’t going to be that.

        If you wanted just a few hours of goofing off and, well, goofing off? There were now options that allowed for more goofing off than having your proverbial brunch interrupted by activists who wanted you to stand for a minute of silence.

        Might as well do one of those.

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        • RE social consciousness, there’s an additional controversy the last year or two with players being accused of violence against women and players being suspended over it. Just one of many: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/22/sports/football/giants-josh-brown-abuse-nfl.html

          The NFL is under fire from some parties who that say it isn’t enough, others think the whole thing is ridiculous. Again, another topic where they can’t please everyone and so they keep taking this middle ground approach that puts everyone off.

          It’s like the NFL, by trying to placate everyone including people who don’t even LIKE the NFL, only makes themselves look like handwringing Jeb-Bushian weaklings who cave at the drop of a Jezebel piece. Not the image you want to present to appeal to the manly men.

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          • I’d agree and disagree with that… we’re now in a place where we can’t say “well, we don’t know what happened” about our favorite player. We now live in a world where we saw the video. We saw the pictures of what the basement looked like. We read the police report.

            When you start having players in the news for absolutely horrible things, it takes away a level of enjoyment. You’re no longer watching your team or your favorite player or whatever, you’re watching the guy from that police report you read.

            Once upon a time, maybe you’d just read that so-and-so was arrested and now he’s not playing anymore. Now? You watched the video on ESPN.com and then went into the forums to argue about the subtle nuances of dog fighting or domestic violence or whatever.

            Easy to find an excuse to not go into the forum that day.
            Easy to find an excuse to not watch the game.

            The WWE has a rule where if you get arrested, wham. You’re released. No ifs, ands, or buts. Maybe you can get rehired if it turns out that it was a case of mistaken identity or you didn’t know that you accidentally put the iPad case in with the rest of the stuff you bought at Wal-Mart or whatever, but they want to be able to say “oh, s/he’s no longer with the company” when asked about it.

            A few months later, after everything shakes out and it turns out that the bag of marijuana actually did belong to your friend and not to you, maybe you can get a new contract.

            But that’s easier when you don’t have to worry about who is winning and who is losing.

            Football doesn’t quite have that luxury.

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      • I dunno. This was the most mediocre regular season in recent memory. There were no great teams. There was no smothering defense like the Broncos, Ravens or Bears of years past. Similarly, there was no high flying offenses like the Pats, Rams or 9ers of yore. There was a bunch of mush, with the difference being better coaching, luck or talent edging teams out. In some ways, it feels like the Pats just sorta won by default.

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    • Seriously the booking agents are terrible… I tried to explain to my wife (as we were out to dinner not watching the Super Bowl LI) why we might care. Best I could do was small hands, deflated balls, inflated egos, and maybe a comeuppance for the establishment if the liar won. She thought it was silly… people with small hands never win.

      For me personally (and I’d be loathe to extrapolate beyond this sample of one)… I’ve lost interest as the game has become more samesy. There used to be greater variations in the “style” of game certain teams play… that made watching match-ups more fun, or at least somewhat interesting. Now a days, meh.

      Its worse in college football… Alabama ruined football. They broke the Iron Triangle of Speed/Size/Skill … by picking all three. Where’s the sport in that?

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    • This is the fault of the bookers.

      Even given New England and Atlanta, the bookers sucked. The babyface races out to an unreasonable lead so people leave, then collapses and lets the heel back in, then Kyle Shanahan, offensive supergenius, has a brain cramp with three minutes to go. I wonder if the 49ers front office is having second thoughts?

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      • This was booked the exact same way as a 1980’s Ric Flair match. The babyface would beat the ever-living itshay out of Flair, make him beg, body slam him from the top rope, make him do the flop, and then Flair gets the schoolboy roll-up after a low blow?

        Dusty Rhodes went to heaven and God asked him if he wanted the book for the next few Superbowls and Dusty smiled and said “I’ll have people standin’ on toppa they keeds.”

        I am not looking forward to the next couple of Superbowls after Russo dies.

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  10. The core problem seems to be to be a point that the OP sort of glided over — cord-cutting. Standard TV ratings no longer capture all of the ways that viewers consume the NFL’s core broadcast product. Illegal or semi-legal piracy is a big deal. DVR’ing and watching later is becoming more popular. Where I live, it’s becoming more common for people to host NFL parties due to the price of the DirecTV NFL package — so there’s more viewers-per-screen as a day of watching pro football turns into a social event. The NFL itself directly sells streaming video products which allow people to watch the games at their leisure, and these are not counted in the TV ratings.

    I see no evidence whatsoever that the NFL is declining in popularity. The quality of the sports product has simply never been better than it is right now — players are in better physical condition and performing at a higher level than ever before. Fantasy football and the semi-legal internet sports gambling games keep fans engaged, and not just for their own favorite teams but virtually all teams around the league. More and more women are tuning in and watching the games than ever before. While Colin Kaepernick certainly pissed a lot of people off, I have never encountered anyone who voiced any opinion about his protests who was not quite certainly going to watch the games anyway.

    Simply put, I don’t think we are at “peak NFL” yet, and if we are, the slope is moving downhill only very slowly. We may be at a milepost in terms of the ability of the league and its media partners to convert viewership into sweet, sweet dollars. The declining viewership of the NFL is simply a microcosm of the evolving ways in which people are consuming all media.

    Particularly as to the Super Bowl, I don’t see that there’s even a particular problem. This year’s Super Bowl was the fourth-most-watched event in television history. Note that events numbers 1, 2, and 3 were the three most recent Super Bowls in 2015 (Patriots* def. SeaChickens), 2014 (SeaChickens def. Broncos), and 2016 (Broncos def. Panthers) respectively. The decline in viewership this year is a decline from 111.9 to 111.3 million viewers. I’m willing to wager that the .5% decline can be substantially accounted for not in declining interest by the fan base, but rather by the fan base finding ways to consume the product that are not captured by the ways overnight TV ratings are measured.

    Another metric by which we might gauge the popularity of the NFL is its secondary product: clothing and other team-branded merchandise. What are the numbers of jerseys, hats, T-shirts, pajamas, and other team gear product sold from year to year? If reliable data can be found, I’ll take the “over” on the trendline for clothing and other merchandise reaching new highs right now.

    I say, NFL football is more popular than it ever was. And for my entire lifetime, it’s been immensely popular.

    * Or, to use my ex-wife’s very amusing nickname for them, “The Head-On-Fire Guys.”

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    • I’ve been thinking about your argument. It is plausible on its face, but I wonder about the dog that isn’t barking.

      The NFL has strong institutional incentives to make this a happy talk story. The “it’s the election” theory plays to that somewhat, in that the decline isn’t due to anything the NFL did or did not do. That is good, but it also has the clear implication that the numbers can go down regardless of what the NFL does or does not do, which is bad. So the official line isn’t entirely happy.

      On its face, “viewership isn’t down at all; it is an artifact of the Nielsen ratings system” is much happier. And they wouldn’t be the first to blame Nielsen. The NFL’s own streaming products in particular would be relevant. The revenue goes straight to the NFL, and it certainly knows the numbers. So if they are good, why aren’t they shouting this from the rooftops? I can think of possibilities, such as trying to keep the traditional networks happy, but they aren’t entirely convincing.

      The point about merchandise sales is interesting. That would indeed be a way to measure popularity, as contrasted with viewership. I quick search turns up reports about total revenue, but not with merchandise sales broken out. So heck if I know.

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      • Baseball tv ratings were up, this article seems to say college football ratings were flat in the fall, but I thought this explanation about the difference btw/ college and NFL was interesting:

        Regional viewership is significant. The NFL’s ratings plunge mostly affected primetime packages that showed one select game to the entire country; there was a much smaller drop for ratings of regional games, such as the Fox and CBS early-afternoon slates.

        “College football is the ultimate regionalized and localized sport,” Mulvihill says. “So if you believe in the idea that—even with many distractions, including the election—sports fans are still making time for the events of their greatest local interest, then it would make sense that college football would hold up a little better than pro football under that kind of circumstance.”

        Baseball these days is also a regionalized sport, and it seems like the NFL has done much better at maintaining a national interest in football for whatever reason. But perhaps the tide is turning and more people just want to watch their one team.

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        • I went to baseball games and kept up with the box scores back in the early 90’s after Denver got the Rockies. When the strike happened? Forget about it.

          I catch a AAA game from time to time now… but I don’t see myself ever going to a MLB game ever again. Heck with them.

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        • A potential complication is that, this year in particular, the nationwide game was often crap.
          Thursday night matchups were bad even by their own standards. London games were too early for the WC and featured teams desparate and with weak enough ownership that they were willing to play in London. The late Sunday game was often the slumping Seahawks vs the likes of the Panthers or Cards – i.e. a good idea in theory, in June. Sunday night I remember some dubious choices in what game to flex, and they can even then only flex half the season. And MNF lost their matching jackets and the shirts underneath on their predictions.
          It’ll probably be better next year, but I will never again say “it can hardly get worse” unironically…

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      • I understand that the focus of the post is the ratings decline. And to that I’d only add that i wonder, given the NFL’s expansion into foreign countries, whether any of the ratings metrics take into account international viewership.

        I understand that less viewers is worse than more viewers. And of course I understand that number of customers is an important metric for any company. But that metric is only useful to the extent it influences the metric that actually matters, namely revenue. And you can grow revenue by driving more customers, but you can also grow revenue by getting existing customers to cough up more (or appealing to customers who are worth more – the ones the marketers want to get to). And while I’m certain the NFL wishes to succeed at both, it can still grow by either being a part of more peoples lives, or by being a bigger part of fewer peoples lives. I have no idea if thats happening by the way.

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  11. I found this piece interesting as I have noticed this within my own social circle. I grew up with the 49ers of the 80’s and 90’s. Joe Montana, Steve Young, great plays, amazing catches, and just an overall excitement that DEFINATELY doesn’t exist for the Niners these days. But I also have lost interest in the game overall. I find the uber-testosterone infused patriotism that is all over the TV coverage of the games eye-roll inducing. I am troubled by the issues around concussions and brain damage. It has also become such an expensive endeavor to go see a game that it feels like there is a disconnect between the fans and the people who actually get to participate, not unlike the disconnect felt by average voters about D.C. society. Back in the day, watching the game was about the game. Now it feels like the game is just part of an overall show.

    I like watching baseball, partially because the coverage (until you get to the playoffs) is local, with local announcers, and a focus on the actual game.

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  12. The odd thing is that the NBA is even more political, with Kerr & Popovich most prominent among the coaches, but it’s basically being ignored and is getting even more popular, especially among younger viewers. Is that because frankly, white dudes that are 45+ already don’t watch the NBA?

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    • I don’t think the politics have much to do with any change in popularity in the NFL (my impression is that people who make the biggest stink about this or that incident aren’t actually fans but ymmv). The NBA struggles I think due to being completely dominated by 3-5 franchises/personalities. If your local team isnt one of them/doesnt have a superstar there isnt much excitement. That plus college basketball is just an infinitely superior product in direct competition.

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      • Basketball seems to me liable to being more star-driven than other team sports. Basketball teams are smaller than other sports, the faces are uncovered, and the venues are more intimate. Hence the “OMG! Michael’s retired! What will we do!” followed eventually by “Glory Glory Hallelujah! We have LeBron!” Some commentators have tried to explain the NFL ratings along these lines, but I don’t buy it.

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      • Except the NBA isn’t struggling. And nobody outside of hardcore college b-ball fans believe the myth that college basketball is better because of The Fundamentals.

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        • I never said it was struggling (the NFL isn’t either, even if we are at the peak of its popularity), I just think there are attributes/challenges of the NBA that will keep it from being as big as the NFL. There will never be an ‘any given Sunday’ aspect that gives casual fans and the minimally interested in markets with bad teams a reason to watch.

          Also who said anything about the fundamentals of the sport? I think college basketball presentation is generally far superior and the competition on the court is much more interesting (actual rivalries for example). My main point though with regard to popularity/viewership is that it also directly competes with NBA time slots in most of the regular season in a way college football doesn’t quite with the NFL.

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          • The reason why the NBA doesn’t have the “Any Given Sunday” aspect is that the playoffs are best of 7 affairs that rewards the best team.

            I’m curious how the presentation of college basketball is superior. Whenever I watch college hoops, I’m struck by how much better the playing, coaching and officiating is in the pros. Yeah, you get Cinderella upsets, but it’s because the better team ends up laying enough bricks to build Trump’s wall.

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  13. I’ve never been a sport guy. I used to go to superbowl parties with my ‘rents to a friends house but spent most time at the bar eating steak tartar.

    And those olympics? I want to see shot put and biathlon. Stuff like that. That’s rarely broadcast when I have time to see it…..soooo

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    • I’m a sport fencer and those are the only Olympic events I’m interested in.

      The streaming coverage from London in 2012 was magnificent. Every minute of every bout was available live, and everything from quarterfinals up was available for several days after. (I was watching women’s epee when the South Korean got cheated, and they showed every bit of the 45 minutes she spent sitting on the edge of the strip while the FIE disgraced itself.) The web interface was responsive and useful. The content was the raw feed from the venue, before any commentary was added, and the camera work and replay were very well done. The stream quality was excellent. I hold it up as an example that even obscure events can be well covered given the tech available today.

      OTOH, they pretty much ruined it for Brazil in 2016. The web interface was painfully slow and lacked most of the useful guide information from 2012. Fewer bouts were shown, and there was much less recorded content. The stream quality often sucked, breaking up and freezing. They added commentators — two Brits who had clearly been told to dumb things down, one of whom appeared to be blind based on what he was describing.

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        • I like it. A Metalympics, where awards are given for accomplishment across multiple sports. Or, every national team member has to compete in two sports categories. Or they have to compete in both Summer and Winter Olympics. (That last one is part of my grand dream to test whether luge requires skill.)

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          • (Meta-lympics, Olympics at a higher conceptual level. Not Metal-ympics, with athletes competing to blaring 1970’s-80’s heavy metal. Although I could be talked into both.)

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