The NFL has a silent war on their hands.
We’ve all seen the news and worry over the recent dip in ratings the NFL has experienced over the past year or so. The culprit? Who knows? Election season is over and ratings continue to slide. Too many commercials? Low quality football? Is it Kaepernick’s fault?
The NFL has already made a lot of moves to address the issue, but the ratings decline has only expedited and magnified what has been an existing dilemma: who does the NFL cater to in this quickly-evolving viewership landscape? The way we watch and consume football has changed so much in just the past decade and with it, the way the NFL must position their sport. The problem is, the NFL is dealing with two starkly different types of fans. When the NFL makes one move to appease one side, it risks pissing off the other.
To make things easier, I’m going to ultra-generalize these two fanbases to the point where we can treat them as a single, representative fan. For instance, let’s use “Marcus” as our NFL fan representing a younger generation. Marcus is in his 20s and is as big an NFL fan as anyone. He has a fantasy team and follows many of the games on his phone or computer (he doesn’t have cable). However, he recognizes that football is a dangerous game and doesn’t mind the league putting in a few safety measures to protect players a little better. He loves the different personalities in the game and often laments the strict celebration rules, calling the NFL the “No Fun League” for banning bow-and-arrow gestures. His problems with the NFL front office extend to off-the-field issues as well, as he bashes the league for their inconsistency with punishments and overly-strict rules regarding marijuana use. As far as social issues go? He could take or leave the Kaepernick stuff and other anthem protests. He doesn’t mind them protesting, but could do without constant coverage flooding the sport broadcasts and analysis. Overall, Marcus is your typical young, forward-thinking, and connected fan and is constantly looking for cheap, convenient ways to watch his favorite sport. However, tons of commercials, penalties, and NFL front office blunders chip away at his will to tune in.
Then, let’s take Joe. Joe, in his 50s, is a much different type of NFL fan, but his love for the game matches Marcus’ and is rooted in memories of watching countless games with his father when he was young. He relishes the aggressiveness of football and its undeniable tie to American culture. However, the game today is far different from the one he watched as a young man. Safety precautions have turned the game “soft” in his mind and he often quips that “they’ll be playing flag football in a few years.” He watches the game the only way he knows how, on regular and reliable cable. He also makes a point to attend a couple of games in person each season. Similar to Marcus, he too notices the much-too-frequent commercial breaks and thinks the sport has gotten way too “corporate.” Another thing that bothers Joe is the boisterous and arrogant players that have populated the league. He prefers players to “act like they’ve been there” when scoring and crediting the team, rather than soaking up the adoration of fans. His biggest complaint? The NFL and media’s apparent tolerance of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest, which went against everything he stands for. He wanted the NFL to rebuke Kap’s actions and vehemently believes the dip in ratings is due many feeling the same disgust that he feels. Despite all this, Joe still watches the NFL and roots as hard for his team as he did 30 years ago. However, each season Joe is hesitant to pour more money into tickets as the league changes from what he once knew.
Before moving forward, it’s important to note once again that these are obvious and extreme generalizations. In reality, the overlap between the Marcuses and Joes of the world is large. There are many fans that think the NFL is going soft, while also agreeing with Kap’s protest. Or fans who are in their 20s and still prefer watching on cable, and vice versa. The differing and overlapping sensibilities of these fans extend across race, gender, age, and much more. However, ratings continue to fall and the NFL is scrambling to make sense of which fans are more important, or rather, how to please all. So with that in mind, we’ll deal with Marcus and Joe as they come. These two avid fans are at war, yet it’s the NFL that hears complaints from one side for any decision they make to appease the other.
So is it time the NFL pick a side and stick with it? We saw them recently make a few changes that would please the “Marcus” type of fan. They laxed their celebration penalty rule, allowing teams to use the ball as a prop again and plan group celebrations (dunking the ball and violent gestures are still not allowed). Also, we’ve seen an interesting decline in the extra point-commercial-kickoff-commercial sequence that enrages any millennial in need of constant stimulation. We’ve also seen them give Marcus easier ways to watch by streaming games for free on Twitter (in 2016) and Amazon Prime (this year). It would appear the NFL is extremely interested in courting and keeping their younger fans, the obvious aim for any sport interested in existing long into the future. However, these aren’t exactly tough moves to make. There’s no Joe that will stop watching altogether because of lenient celebration rules and will benefit from the decline in commercials and added viewing options.
So how about those tough decisions? Whether it’s contributing to declining ratings or not, the Kaepernick issue matters to a lot of fans and are watching to see exactly how the NFL handles it. The difficulty of balancing this line can be perfectly illustrated by Goodell’s politic-speak when asked about Kap. “The national anthem is a special moment to me,” Goodell said. “It’s a point of pride. That is a really important moment. But we also have to understand the other side, that people do have rights and we have to respect those.” You can almost imagine Goodell teetering on a tight rope in his own head as he risks pissing off large swaths of its fanbase with each passing sentence.
Kaepernick is far from the only issue. How about how the league handles marijuana use? The NFL has a bad (or good, depending on your view) reputation for handing out severe penalties (often a 4-game suspension) for players caught using marijuana. To someone like Marcus, these punishments are absurd when juxtaposed to the one- or two-game suspensions of Josh Brown and Ray Rice, both of whom admitted to domestic abuse (they were both later suspended longer amounts, but only after extreme public outrage). As for the NFL’s future view on the issue? This time, Goodell was much more decided. “Listen, you’re ingesting smoke, so that’s not usually a very positive thing that people would say. It does have addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for the players long-term,” Goodell said. It’s safe to say the league’s substance abuse policy isn’t changing anytime soon. And while we’re at it, how about legalized betting (for fans of course, not players). Once again, Goodell knew where he stood. “The integrity of our game is No. 1. We will not compromise on that,” Goodell said about the prospect of legalized gambling. As far as these issues go, it’s clear that the NFL is erring on the side of Joe, whether intentional or not.
And finally, and perhaps more important than anything, how about the sport itself? Both Marcus and Joe complain about the quality of what they’re watching. Marcus is sick of the dink-and-dunk offense and yearns for deep routes and heavy blitzes, fake punts and two-point conversions. Joe longs for the days of skull-rattling hits and the power running game, and he screams at his TV every time a “roughing the passer” is called when the QB was “barely” dinged in the head. This is perhaps the NFL’s toughest challenge. They can’t rollback safety measures after the massive settlement they just paid to former players for head injuries. And changing the rules of the sport to encourage more exciting plays is as risky a move as they come. A mere tweak to the extra-point distance was met with resistance and anger on all sides (although, with social media today one could argue that any change could be met with resistance at first, only to be accepted later). The NFL finally hired full-time referees in an attempt to improve the officiating, a common grievance from fans in the 2016 season. Still, we continue to hear the complaint that the “NFL isn’t what it used to be” and somehow this is coming from both Marcus and Joe, which has to be maddening for the NFL.
It would almost seem easier for the NFL to just commit to a position and stick with it. But of course this is an impossible ask. Fans like Marcus are the key for the NFL to maintain longevity, but they don’t bring in the money or fill stadiums at nearly the capacity that Joes do (yet). Filled stadiums and high cable ratings, both things that Joe helps out with, were and are still the key for the NFL to score gaudy sponsorship and broadcasting deals. The NFL is far from losing sponsors altogether, but what they do stand to lose is the leverage to justify the exorbitant amounts these deals are worth. With each type of fan on different ends of the spectrum on many issues, the NFL is navigating its toughest period yet.
This, of course, is far from a unique problem for a sports organization. The NBA, MLB, NHL and others are all struggling to determine how to position their league in the best way possible. Some leagues are arguably doing a better job than others, putting even more pressure on the NFL to get this right.
Maybe you, the reader, identify partly with Marcus and partly with Joe. What can the NFL do to keep you interested? Keep an eye on the NFL’s moves this season and the near future to see who the NFL is speaking to: you, or someone else.