The National Football League (NFL) has long been recognized as a seemingly bullet proof business. It was only three years ago that CBS ponied up billions of dollars for the rights to televise Thursday night games. At the time the contract was seen as a can’t lose slam dunk for the network. Just a few short years later there is real concern not only for NFL ratings but the existence of the league in general.
Before you write this off as a ridiculous idea, there are definite warning signs that can’t be ignored. The NFL has peaked and here are a few reasons why it won’t be around in ten years.
1. Reduced youth programs
Even the most casual NFL observer is aware of the increase in concussions. For many parents, football is no longer seen as tough or courageous but instead, blatantly dangerous. While this has only had a ripple effect in the NFL itself the bigger impact has been felt at the youth level.
Youth tackle leagues have seen a stark decline in registrations over the past five years. Parents have begun to look for fall sport alternatives such as soccer and even fall baseball. There are more ex-football players saying they wouldn’t want their sons playing than ever before.
If eight to twelve year olds begin finding alternatives it will only be a matter of time before local leagues begin to fold. Youth sports have always been the pipeline to high school, college and eventually the professional level. With such a stark reduction in youth football programs eventually the well will run dry.
2. Increased injuries
The elephant in the room for the league is the increase in head injuries. Even with the increases in equipment, head injuries are on the rise. Those in favor of football will say that we have become soft and these injuries are just part of the game. The problem with that argument is that real people are suffering from head trauma twenty years after playing.
In recent years there has been a handful of players that have retired early partially from fear of head injuries. Just last year All Pro receiver Calvin Johnson retired leaving millions of dollars on the table. The average NFL lifespan is right around four years. For every superstar twelve year veteran, there is someone else who can no longer take the constant pounding and is forced to retire. The more we find out about concussions and the long term effects of the game the less likely that people will be running to play.
3. Market saturation
TV numbers are down over the first six weeks of the NFL season. Just a few weeks ago a Monday night game suffered the lowest rating in the programs history. Whether this is due to the election year cycle, increased programming options, or poor product, it is a real problem. This is the first time in over a decade that viewership has declined. Some may argue that there are more ways to watch a game than ever before but falling ratings is an indicator of bigger problems.
In the past there were games only on Sunday with the marquee game on Monday night. This week there is a game on Thursday night, Sunday morning in London, all day Sunday, Sunday night and Monday night. Anyone that said you can’t have too much of a good thing is wrong. Even the most diehard football fan doesn’t want to watch football three different nights. The Thursday night game has become almost unwatchable due to the quick turnaround time and the Sunday night game is on after eight hours of football.
People are feeling NFL fatigue and is starting to be reflected in the ratings.
4. Player makeup
It seems that every few weeks there is another dramatic story about someone in the NFL. Over the past few years cases of domestic violence from Ray Rice to Greg Hardy have become national headlines. These are just a tip of the iceberg. Between gun violence issues to domestic abuse, there are more negative stories about the league than ever before.
The increase of social media has certainly helped fuel these stories but they are there. Whether the accumulation of these stories has had an impact is impossible to tell but they are definitely hanging over the league at all times.
There is a reason the NFL has been known in some circles as the No Fun League. The league has strict rules regarding everything from the length of player’s socks to the celebration after they score a touchdown. It has become a league where every action is critiqued and even penalized.
The average fan does not want to see this. They want to see people having fun and not being told what they can do and what they can wear. This year marks the ten year anniversary of Commissioner Roger Goodell who has spearheaded many of these rule changes. Is it possible that the way he handled the Tom Brady & Ray Rice saga has finally turned many loyal viewers off?
All of the other reasons have definitely contributed to the recent decline but only one thing will truly stop the NFL from continuing, and that’s death. All you need to do is turn on any NFL game for twenty minutes and you are likely to see someone get violently injured. It is not uncommon for someone to go down with numbness in their limbs and be carted off the field on any given week. Eventually the speed and power of the game will produce an on field death.
Think about the effect this will have nationally. As morbid as it sounds, how does a league play games a week after a wide receiver breaks their neck on national TV? The image will be played over and over on every media outlet for weeks on end. There will be protests outside of every stadium and calls from congress to change the way the game is played. Some may dismiss the incident as a freak accident but too many will feel the impact. This will cause mass changes either in the equipment or the rules of the game. You may even see the league take off the helmets in an attempt to get rid of head contact all together.
Whatever is done, the game will not be the same and the networks that pay billions of dollars will look for a way to recoup their investment. All it takes is one catastrophic injury to completely change the way people view the NFL.
As little as five years ago you couldn’t find a bigger NFL fan than me. However the more I watch the game the more I feel dirty doing so. There is going to be a mortal injury sooner rather than later. If you think the NFL will be around in ten years you are only fooling yourself.