America at Large: Decline NFL ratings continues to puzzle stakeholders

Most powerful ratings juggernaut in American sport has mysteriously slowed down

In the waning hours of the presidential election campaign, Donald Trump took time out from discussing matters of greater import to talk NFL.

Unlike at previous rallies, he didn’t make fun of the namby-pamby concussion protocols he reckons are just too soft on players, or, another pet peeve, lambaste the way referees have emasculated the game by penalising brain-damaging head-on-head tackles.

Instead, he boasted about the impact his run for the White House had on the most popular sport in the country.

“Do you know the NFL ratings are way down?” he asked. “You know why? Because everyone’s watching this.”


A couple of weeks earlier, Rush Limbaugh, doyen of right-wing talk radio, chief booster of all things Trump, offered his own take on why the league’s audience has shrunk significantly since the start of the season.

Turns out the analysts positing theories like oversaturation of the market, games taking too long to play and excessive penalty-calling causing infuriating delays were just plain wrong.

In Limbaugh’s never-humble opinion, and hey, he was right about the election all along, the problem was pretty blatant.

"In all of the discussions that you've heard about why the NFL is haemorrhaging audience, there's one thing nobody mentions: Colin Kaepernick and the other players protesting the flag, protesting during the national anthem before games," he said.

Spurious poll

Armed with a spurious poll to back up his contention that it was all the fault of the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback and others displaying a smattering of social conscience, Limbaugh’s rant got the headlines he craves.

The thing is though it was hard to quibble with his assertion because nobody really knows why this is happening.

The only thing generally agreed upon is that the most powerful ratings juggernaut in American sport has mysteriously slowed down. Going into last weekend, audiences had declined by 15 per cent compared to 2015. Not a number to be sniffed at but why?

"Because the league isn't fun anymore," said Seattle Seahawks' cornerback Richard Sherman.

“Every other league, you see the players have a good time. It’s a game. This isn’t politics. This isn’t justice. This is entertainment. And they’re no longer allowing the players to entertain. They’re no longer allowing the players to show any kind of personality, any kind of uniqueness, any individuality, because they want to control the product, they want to control the messaging, et cetera et cetera.”

To make his point about the excessive corporatisation of the sport, Sherman invoked the NBA where, unlike grid-iron, the players do not get fined for excessive celebrations and there are far fewer rules governing sudden outbreaks of charisma.

His contention, and one that has gained currency in a lot of quarters, is that younger fans relish the trash-talking and the chest-pounding and the lack of it makes the NFL less attractive to that key demographic.

Another school of thought holds that the under-25s aren’t watching anyway. At least not in the traditional way their fathers did.

Fantasy sports

They may be turned on by the lure of fantasy sports but this is a generation as content to follow the progress of a game and their selected players via social media and streaming clips as they are to plonk themselves down in an armchair for the duration of a Sunday afternoon.

Which brings us to another possible explanation.

Like baseball, football matches have lately morphed into endurance tests for even the most avid viewers. Going into last weekend, games were taking an average of three hours and 12 minutes, seven minutes longer than just two seasons back.

The increased length, a consequence of more scrupulous refereeing, is extraordinary given that the ball is in play for only around 10 minutes of that time.

That every break in the action is also punctuated by a television commercial is ridiculous in a user-friendly 21st century media environment where viewers are increasingly unwilling to tolerate advertising interruptions when watching prime time shows.

"We look constantly at improving the rules of the game, the safety of the game and the quality of the game," said Brian Rolapp, NFL Network president, last week, "even if that means changing things that some people think are sacred cows. Is there a better way to do commercials with our broadcast partners?"

Rethinking the commercials policy may be easier said than done because NFL’s prodigious growth over the past four decades has been wrapped up in television.

Clubs that got $2m a year for broadcast rights in the late 1970s now earn $226m per season. Against that background, the networks call the shots and their demands have led to fixtures now being televised every Sunday, Monday and Thursday. Too much of a good thing?

"I'm just telling you: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they're getting hoggy," said Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, predicting the NFL's television schedule was becoming excessive back in 2014.

“When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business.”

Last weekend, the first slate of matches since the election saw a significant bump in television ratings. The comeback may have been because of a particularly attractive set of match-ups or, of course, it could be that Trump was right. It was him all along.

Dave Hannigan

Dave Hannigan

Dave Hannigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New York