Weekend Edition: Has the NFL Jumped the Shark?

The NFL has seen its ratings and average attendance continue on a downward slope in recent years, and 2016 looks to be no exception.

In fact, from 2010 to 2011, there was a 4% overall drop that the NFL not only hasn't recovered from, but has slipped even further. Opening Day 2016 has seen the highest attendance over the first four weeks thus far but it's unsurprising to me. One would think the first game of the season would bring out the most fans during the early parts of the season when all teams still have "hope" with a record of 0-0. Cleveland, Miami, and Detroit fans lose hope at 0-1 because they've seen that movie many times already...

Below, you'll find as close to an apolitical analysis of something inherently political as you're likely to find, as well as links to blogs and news-media stories on the subject. Don't get me wrong; I'm as "political" as the next person, but I have no visions of self-grandiosity in thinking you're reading this for my political beliefs. This is the NFL, folks. It's your & my diversion, so I'll try and check my own bias at the virtual door. Forgive me if I can't help but take a shot at what Mike Mayock might call "low-hanging fruit," though. Sarcasm doesn't always translate well.  

Finally, left-clicking on any of the links opens them in a new tab or window, so you won't lose your place by accessing them.

It's Political

2016 happens to be a Presidential election year as we all know too well (we always know this "all too well" if you've been through one before). Logically speaking, there will be some fans who are simply too busy with other things than to go to an NFL ball game during this time, but that's really the tip of the iceberg.

Most fans are also well aware of San Francisco 49er backup QB Colin Kaepernick's antics regarding sitting or kneeling for the Star Spangled Banner. I'll let others comment on the political pros and cons of that, but taking it at face value, his protesting isn't helping with the subject at hand. If you ask yourself "Would I be more or less likely to go to an NFL game considering this," I feel like the answer has to be "less likely" with most people probably saying that it makes no difference & they'll go either way.

In fact, take a look at this article Shock Poll: A Third of NFL TV Viewers boycotting games because of Colin Kaepernick-led protests. It looks to be more than just a sampling of people who saw the poll and decided to answer, as Rasmussen Sports did the polling. In this poll, 32% said they were "less likely" to watch, given Kaepernick's protests, as opposed to only 13% who said they were "more likely" to watch the games. That leaves 55% who, I assume, it either wouldn't affect or they just don't know. It also does affect 

It also most certainly did NOT help the NFL's image when they denied a request by the Dallas Cowboys to honor the five slain Dallas police officers after civil unrest in the city...and only a few weeks after I drove through & stayed the night there on my car trip home from vacation in late June. I remember thinking to myself "Oh boy. Bad, bad optics, Roger!"

...then a bit more selfish: "Glad I didn't stay!"

Kaepernick happens to play in one of the most Liberal NFL cities, San Francisco, and likely doesn't alienate much of the Home crowd...at least, probably not enough to make it immediately noticeable. I think there are like 5 hard-right Conservatives there. Total. In fact, the arrival of Chip Kelly as Head Coach would likely more than offset any attendance losses that may have been incurred there, so San Fran is hard to judge by itself in this case.

However, the NFL does draw fans from all walks of life. Being a Panthers fan, I know that our fan base tends to lean a tad more Conservative than average simply by way of geography and past political voting trends compared with many other regions. NC is a red state turning purple, while SC has been a red state pretty much forever. I'm only saying here that the fan base in aggregate likely looks the same.

San Francisco and Seattle are well-known for left-leaning political views, as are a lot of heavily-unionized cities, such as those found in the Rust Belt. Certainly, there are a good number of people from both ends of the political spectrum in any given team's fan base. It's all relative.

No, It's the Internet, Stupid!

I can't be certain, since I tend to watch my NFL games on a 50" screen & not a 5" one, but the NFL has finally gotten "streaming" games to be stable in their delivery. There aren't so many artifacts or crashed/stuck video feeds with ever-increasing internet speeds, efficiency, and technology of 2016. In fact, just last week, I noticed that the very same game on TV nationally (the 4 pm game) was the same one being streamed on NFL.com. 

I might have been a bit later to the whole "mobile phone" video craze, but it has been by choice. I personally have no great need to shrink a ball game to a size where I can't really see the action in the first place just because I want to be on the go. Goodness knows, those busy Sunday afternoons!

However, I'm sure the convenience factor plays a good part of it, especially for those with unlimited data plans (I don't -- again, no need). Mobile platforms do seem to be a perfect compromise between the investment in time & money to see a game ( ~ $440 per person per game, all inclusive, league-average) and being a prisoner in your or your friends' living room for over three hours. So, I'm sure streaming video is a part of the equation and will be an increasing share for the near future.

No, No, Dummy! It's STILL Mostly TV!

Yes, I actually did a bit of research before posting...imagine that! Okay, save your letters. I'm not perfect, I just did some hunting around and am letting you know what I'm finding.

First, NFL attendance grew very briskly up until about the mid-1970's when the curve began to start to flatten out quite rapidly. This certainly coincides with a time when televisions became a lot more affordable for the average person to get. I recall around 1983, when I got my own first TV set. It was a 19" color TV and cost $330....remember, in 1983 dollars. That would be about double today, so while not exactly cheap, they were heading lower rather quickly.

In the past five to ten years, satellite television has been bringing every NFL game into view...for those who are willing to pay for it. NFL Sunday Ticket lets a person flip between multiple games at once, and there's even a "Red Zone" Channel, which programs exactly what it sounds like -- showing bits of games when one of the teams has the ball inside the opponent's 20-yard line. 

Secondly, NFL ratings for 2016 alone are down 10%. While I think the mobile/streaming content takes up a good part of the slack here, the truth is nobody knows for certain. It sure does coincide with the Presidential race and, more pointedly, with Colin Kaepernick's protesting.

Furthermore, teams like the Raiders have recently cut seating capacity in order to avoid television blackouts. Ironic, considering the team's history (search for "The Bambi game" online) isn't it? Now that the Raiders are making a bit of noise with some solid young talent like Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, and Amari Cooper, Oakland's attendance figures bear closer scrutiny since they also share the Bay Area with the Niners.

NFL isn't Quite so Tech-Savvy After All

At this point, that would be the "safest" long-term, bottom-line answer: technological innovation. With television being the biggest leech to attendance, but good for the NFL's exposure over the long term, the NFL has figured out the best balance over the years as the sport has seen growth into what it is today. 

The problem remains, however, as to how to "monetize" some of these formats. You don't have to pay to see a game streaming on NFL.com, and you don't have to pay for most local-market games. It sounds contrarian in some ways, but the overall idea is to give the local markets a chance to expose the Home Team to as many potential consumers as possible. Why show all of Seattle's games in Miami? Few Floridians would likely make the trip literally across the country to attend a 'Hawks game when they can see it for free in Broward County on TV, right?

Free streaming/TV is the NFL's answer to the question "How do you obtain a life-long fan?" By exposing them to their local team's games while a younger person grows up watching them with the same team's fans. They'll grow up to become a paying fan; in the meantime, a source for purchases of Christmas & birthday presents by parents. The league spends millions a year figuring & forecasting these things down to the penny, you can bet. As a result, they likely know better than anybody else what's going on behind the scenes financially, and probably aren't too chipper about it these days.

It's the Colin Kaepernick Effect, Stupid!

Should the NFL be worried about ratings? Of course, they should. Ratings means money both through direct means (advertising gets more expensive with each viewer) and indirect means (getting people to buy team merchandise). While the blogger here started out with a couple of good points, he largely counter-argued himself out of them by noting "most of the decline coming in night games," while Sunday afternoon games have seen little change, he says.

"Night games" are on during the most precious time slots in television. Here, when I say "Prime Time," I'm not talking about Deion Sanders. The 8-10 pm time slot is called "prime time" for a reason: it's the networks' bread-and-butter viewing time, when the decision-makers of a household are at home with leisure time, in general. It's the time right after dinner and after work when people are unwinding from a long, hard day before going to bed to do it all over again the next day. If the NFL is losing THOSE folks?

Current 2016 attendance can be tracked here.

Apparently so. Button, meet Panic.

Certainly, the first Presidential debate, on a Thursday night opposite the NFL, had a measurable effect on ratings, but that's only accounting for a single night. My instincts tell me that this time around, since politics has been saturating the news cycles for months now, people would be open to more diversions in sporting events than ever before. 

Matt Dolloff of CBS: Boston starts with yet another theory. He thinks the cause is "an eroding quality of games," in part, but then quickly goes on to cite Kaepernick's protesting from the second paragraph onward.

Yet another, from MMBQ of SI, lays the blame with Donald Trump. If that weren't enough, He Did it again.

While "priding himself on being immune to the spin, being from Washington D.C.," the author of the piece goes on to spin it up really well, blaming Donald Trump and the election year in general, but can I say it? "There you go again?" Trump is the problem and not Kaepernick, seriously?

How does he explain what The Epoch Times who notes what I have -- that NFL attendance has been falling for years -- making ANY effect (of Trump OR Kaepernick OR the King of Siam) only the icing on the proverbial cake?

While I suppose anything CAN be true, the Rasmussen poll naysays the Trump angle while gainsaying the Kaepernick angle. Odd how the author can blame politics, then expunge it (election year), then turn right around and blame it again (Trump). In particular, he thinks people tuned in last year to watch Peyton Manning play, when the reality is he didn't play much and when he played, he played poorly. Perhaps I should point to Hillary's perceived marginal health as the reason the NFL is so strict about concussions these days.

In any case, that author seems to have missed entirely, since Mr. Dolloff cites actual numbers where Mr. Brandt did not: 

FOX’s early-afternoon slate of games dropped by 10 percent year-over-year while the late-afternoon games dropped by 20 percent. The 1 p.m. regional games were the only time slot that saw a slight ratings uptick, growing by 2 percent over last season. -- Matt Dolloff

Dolloff cites this article as his source. I don't have a subscription to check, so I'll take his claim at face-value. As for Mr. Brandt...If one wants to blame someone not even involved with the league, well, I can certainly see a storm on the horizon, to say the least, and while I'm not trying to "call out" anyone in particular, his article would appear to be a slice of real insight into a part of the underlying political driving force of the issue rather than a reasonable explanation for them.

Clearly, more than one single thing is at work.

I do have to thank Mr. Brandt, at least, for reminding me to keep my own politics to myself in this infused subject, so as we say....it's all good. He's simply expressing his opinion while I'm looking for the truth of the bigger picture wherever it leads. Mr. Brandt is an NFL insider so I don't know what other interests he may or may not have, but his credentials dwarf mine. I see him offering short-term explanations in "missing marquee players" but not even acknowledging the decline in ratings, saying "if there is one."

Well, everything I've seen says there is, and he's MUCH more connected than I am, so something just doesn't seem quite right. I personally don't think the core NFL fans "just stay home" or don't watch if the team is short a star...or did we Panthers fans not watch last year because of no Kelvin Benjamin or won't watch on Monday Night because of no Cam? Perhaps a few, but I highly doubt it makes the huge difference he claims. Injuries are a part of the game and it isn't any different in THAT respect than it has been in the past, so that tells me something else is at work.

Two Elephants Still in the Room

Yes...namely, political upheaval and player safety. Technological advances can be seen coming, even if many organizations are slow to understand the potential. That takes vision, and the visionaries that are correct make out like bandits when they seize the opportunity and blaze a trail for some great new technological innovation.

The same thing cannot be said for the two elephants.

Both have been headlines for the entire 2016 NFL season, at least, while the player safety issue has been a big concern especially in the last five years, when head injury/concussion data (as well as a big lawsuit from the NFLPA over the issue) has raised public awareness. Whenever the league decides on their political endgame, they still have to deal with a much longer-term problem of safety. People like Colin Kaepernick or even Presidents come & go over time. The safety concerns will be much more far-reaching than any other single item over the long haul, but the league has this political "insurgency" of sorts to try and navigate in the intermediate term. If ratings continue trending downward, the league office will have to raise the item on the agenda and address it.

With the concussion & head trauma business necessarily taking many years to narrow down scientifically, there has to be a number of parents who will now not allow probably at least a noticeable fraction of would-be future NFL players to even play the game as a kid until the game is made much more like flag football than it already has been made. Where will the NFL be then, if not expanded and then watered down? That's a triple-whammy when you include the would-be NFL players either playing a different sport like the NBA or the second-place sport in terms of revenue, which would be the game of Major League Baseball.

Bo knows.

Political upheaval is higher this election cycle than ever before, largely because of those very same technological advances that have helped NFL players' names become household ones. Every frame is dissected, analyzed, and rebroadcast. Bad behavior like the Beckham/Norman on-field slug-fest gets magnified more than ever before. Kaepernick's antics, whatever the "real reason" behind them is or isn't, likely is turning off more fans than bringing them in, as the Rasmussen poll suggests. Rightly or wrongly, Mr. Kaepernick has given a large-enough number of NFL fans reason to sour on the game. 

Personally, I am about as concerned with athletes' political ideals as I am our politicians' collective ability to shoot hoops. They (politicians) do have a knack of throwing us junk pitches, but I digress. I watch sports for an entertaining escape, not for ever-more political discourse. That's exactly what I'm wanting to get away from when I tune in; I suspect what is currently a minor annoyance to me is a major insult to that subset of fans, like, say, the 20 million or so military veterans. While a few vets take pride in the fact they served exactly so that people like Colin Kaepernick can express himself this way, if Twitter is any indication, I'd have to say a vast majority of the veterans I've seen commenting come down on the insulted side of the question.

Goodell has Stepped in it -- Again

The NFL's official response to Kaepernick's show of "oppression" has been "it's his right." Okay, so it's his "right," then.

Massive problem just solidified: Roger, you just gave the NFLPA a truckload of ammo to use in future litigation, my friend, not to mention the fact that, once bestowed, a right isn't something one can just roll back like Wal-Mart prices. Despite NFL total revenues having risen in recent years -- as likely a function of exposure and shrewd marketing/merchandising as anything else -- the "action" as it were has a very stock market-y "toppy" feeling to me. 

Barring expansion overseas, which is on the horizon likely for Western Europe and mainly London to begin with, new sources of revenue are getting harder and harder to come by. With telecommunications being what they are, it isn't as if Europeans have no exposure to the NFL right now. NFL Europe as well as games in London each year have already flung the doors to those markets wide open. Perhaps, it's all a part of setting up increasing demand before delivering a product like, for instance, a "London Kings" franchise. "Monarchs" is taken and I really don't think an NFL franchise called "The London Queens" would go over too well. 

*sarcasm on* Hello, Political Correctness. Meet Testosterone. He's Italian. *sarcasm off*

Things become in-line with the Law of Diminishing Returns at some point. We have already passed it with both attendance AND TV viewership. It's very difficult for me to see these two oldest (well, there's always sports radio) cash cows increasing much after all this time, leaving expansion as the best hope for future growth.

The issue is that any large organization such as the NFL has a path laid out, and deviating from that path takes time. The NFL has a metaphorical turning radius of an aircraft carrier because of many reasons, but tradition and bureaucracy are two of the larger ones.

Kaepernick's decision to do what he's doing will not "unite" anybody. On the contrary, it only brings to the surface every individual's political bias, mine and yours included, and the effect has been and I believe will continue to be polarizing, not bridge-building. Just check your Twitter account for people quoting him and screeching about "seeing the light."

I'm in the middle of hurricane Matthew, so I have time to wait. Scotty told me around 7 a.m. or about two minutes after I woke up that the main energizer was out. However, Emergency power is holding. 

Another thing is that Colin Kaepernick isn't exactly the poster boy for "oppression" as a QB with a $100 million contract who doesn't even put his body on the line each week. He's a back-up to the Great Blaine "Street Tragic" Gabbert. In fact, being very likely the most overpaid player in the league and protesting the flag in the name of "oppression" makes him a big hypocrite in the eyes of many people, further polarizing the fan base and alienating some. I think we've all seen examples of that, whatever our viewpoint is.

Because of his unique platform, exposure, and false-oppressed perceived persona, he is the last NFL player I'd pick to be effective in getting such a message across. I'd favor of someone who grew up not in a middle-upper-class family, but more along the lines of someone who truly is a rags-to-riches story instead of a wealthy-to-riches one. Pro sports is replete with such examples.

What Started the Protesting in the First Place?

Here's where things really get dicey. There are conflicting accounts that Kaepernick converted to Islam, along with obviously-doctored photos; You can search for them online yourself. I don't think he himself has converted. I mention it because, agree or disagree, it matters to some people.

His fiancee, Nessa Diab, IS Muslim and a #BLM activist. That much is factual: simply check her Twitter feed @nessnitty. 

I realize this is a very tender subject to tread upon, but Kaepernick's protests would seem to be logically linked with the interests of his better half. Whatever your opinion of #BLM is, it appears to be a movement that has legs. Kaepernick's protesting is very likely intertwined with his fiancee's activism.

Now, trying to tie up the gazillion loose ends here....

What's Next?

With Lord Goodell's bestowing of "rights" that don't necessarily exist -- ie: your 1st and 2nd Amendment rights stop at someone else's property line -- Goodell has done his part to give this thing legs, for better or for worse. True "ownership" of some stadiums is murky with the public/private partnerships that have built many in recent years. 

Only time will tell if this is a mere blip on the radar like the 1982 NFL player strike or if the spectacle turns off a significantly larger portion than it already has. One thing I AM sure of in any case.

"Protesting" during the National Anthem is something the fans are going to have to either get used to or there's always college football. I'd be interested to see how the NCAA's ratings have been doing over the past few years.

Oh, by the way -- The Southeast is yours, Mr. Scott.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye