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Why NFL TV ratings are down, and why you don't have to care

Football fans aren’t watching. They’re not missing anything.

A football fan points a cellphone at the TV broadcast of an NFL game.

The NFL’s ratings are down. You don’t have to care. Contrary to what the NFL would like to you think, it’s not a fifth branch of the military, a fourth branch of government, or even a third uncle to you. It’s not a national park, or a vital security interest for this nation. It’s 32 billionaire owners running an overgrown children’s contest with contract labor and wildly variable degrees of competent management. You can opt out. It’s legal.

The NFL indirectly pays Phil Simms real American money to talk for a living, and allows owners like the Maras to suggest that there is an acceptable level of spousal abuse — and that this is America’s most popular sport should depress you. It should give you full-on Johnny Cash-singing-Hurt levels of depression if you pump enough of it into your eyeballs every Sunday.

If that is how you feel about the NFL, then lower ratings could make you happy. Then again, ratings are down for the EPL, too, the actual World’s Most Valuable Sports Enterprise, and for most other sports, and for TV — and somewhere along the way something like one out of every 10 people watching content/programming/things on TV just up and disappeared.

Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?

Tom Townsend: None. I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking.


I don’t really watch that much TV anymore. For instance: The Red Wedding was one of my favorite moments in recent television history. I’ve never seen it, but it was amazing. Robb Stark murdered at his own wedding! And Talisa Stark’s murder! So vicious, so cruel, and yet so Thrones. I could barely watch the GIF, but I did, because that’s how it is with this show. I don’t want to have others vicariously watch it and curate it for me, but it — and the hundreds, if not thousands, of people watching it for me — just keep pulling me back.

In fact, I haven’t watched an episode of Game of Thrones past the first season. I still have a fairly good handle on what’s happening, though — enough to converse, not dishonestly, about where I think the show’s going and which characters might survive for longer than three seconds before being set on fire. Same with The Walking Dead, a show I’m definitely smarter for not watching, since letting others watch it for me lets me see the big scenes in excerpts without having to wade through the show’s garbage plot lines.

Norman Reedus is so good on that show — at least in the clips I’ve seen posted on the internet. Simply incredible.

I do watch some shows in their entirety. Some even get the full, now vintage “seated prone on the couch and watching almost intently” treatment (Atlanta on FX, for instance). But otherwise, there’s a lot of content to watch, and even more to just be generally aware of out there. Too much, in fact, which is why I can happily farm out that work in exchange for my careful social media reportage on the three or four things I can actually pay attention to in a week.

TV viewership from 2011-2016 is down among every age demographic except among viewers age 65+ (they're up 5.1%).

This is the case for complex content produced for nonlinear entertainment. It’s a struggle, even with an entire system set up to allow me to consume it at any time I like. There is nothing easier than watching television in 2016. There is also nothing else you will never, ever be able to catch up with because by the time you finish watching something you have missed three other vitally important and critically acclaimed things you should be watching, and that’s before you get to the other things you really need to watch, like the critically acclaimed Halt and Catch Fire, which every smart and tasteful and interesting person on my timeline seems to love.

I am never going to get around to watching Halt and Catch Fire.

The EPL’s ratings are, for the moment, down about 19% on the year. There is no election year and no possibly mythical counterprotest/boycott of the EPL to blame for the dive in ratings. Ken Early of The Irish Times wrote a piece on Oct. 17 about this mysterious swan dive in viewership and came to two conclusions:

a.) That people are illegally streaming soccer, which yeah.

b.) That “people like everything about football except watching it.”

I like both of these. The first assumes people don’t care about large corporations and will steal from them. This is fair, since the reverse is true and illegal streaming has gone from something that used to require skill to something that just requires a lot of closing pop-up ads for MacKeeper and online gambling sites. NOT THAT I KNOW FROM EXPERIENCE.

The second is way, way more interesting because I don’t think he’s quite right here. People love watching football, and sports in general, but the method of consumption is now just mobile and variable. The dream shown in a thousand phone ads — “I can watch the game on my phone!” — is real. Usually a second person is watching with this person in ads, fist-pumping along in a hoodie because the future can’t be lonely, ever.

Yet that’s not what people are doing. The drop in ratings is real, and it’s most likely permanent by the measures of what people consider to be television ratings. There is instead an entire segment of the population dropping out completely to watch games through social media. This happens on Facebook, Twitter, and sure, maybe via an app, but it happens without ever skating over most of what cable providers and leagues consider their turf. A fan can ping-pong back and forth on their phone, do other things, and still multitask their way through an entire day’s games without missing much.

As Early writes, “It has become possible to watch nothing, and yet miss nothing.”

This goes beyond the issue of whether fantasy sports and RedZone have siphoned off a too-large segment of the NFL’s fan base. Once fans realize there is another way to keep up without ever watching, one that’s more involved than a box score, with video and and GIFs and all the discussion and supplemental content you need minus the actual tedium of wading through a hundred ads a game? They’re gone. They are not coming back, and, in time, will get even more efficient at paring down the already paltry amount of action.

Case in point: The epic 6-6 Sunday Night Football tie between the Arizona Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks. This game was hilarious, and I did not watch it. Instead, I went to sleep for a while and experienced it through:

  1. The box score, which I saw clipped and posted as an image on Twitter. This provoked further curiosity I could have about this game, since I had some time I might have otherwise not had — because I had wisely decided before it ever happened not to watch it.
  2. Peter King’s MMQB lead-in on the game, which sort of just amounted to some entertaining shrugging and kicker-shaming.
  3. This tweet from PFTCommenter:

And that’s ... that’s about all I needed or wanted from Cardinals/Seahawks. It’s not that I won’t watch the NFL, or don’t completely care. I do. I care exactly enough to want to know what happened, and not enough to do any of the work involved. People do this work for me all over the place, and it is all free, and I can consume it and be just aware enough all while still having the time to watch other, shorter things I enjoy way more than four hours of soul-deadening NFL football.

Even if I do enjoy NFL football, I can watch RedZone, the show where the entire program is made of touchdowns. You can entertain blind rhetorical swipes at why the NFL is now undeniably bad: whether the rules, which have always been arbitrary and dumb, are now unacceptably arbitrary and dumb; whether the “quality of play” has declined, as if that’s anything sports fans cared about or could even recognize; or whether the league allowing athletes to protest has sparked a completely unsubstantiated backlash from invisible viewers. Or you could consider that the mode of delivery is now different, and years of the sports populace becoming internet savvy have resulted in a bulk departure from the traditional means of content delivery.

As for what the NFL does to combat it? Um ... nothing. It can’t do anything about this at all. It can try retrograde legal tactics, which is what every aging monopoly does on the advice of its attorneys. The NFL still believes it is a rentier-class entity, capable of living off the rent from its properties. To it, a GIF or slice of excerpted content is an unpaid parking fee, because the NFL is something you rent. The NFL is a product, not the mysterious eye-catcher you might call “content.” This is, to some extent, something it’s already doing.

The NBA, meanwhile, is the landlord of the future. It’s a very different league with very different schedules and realities, sure, but it knows you can’t watch every game. Hell, the NBA knows you might not watch an entire game all season — one of the reasons it’s mostly fine with content sliced up however you care to do it across multiple social platforms. The NBA does not do this out of the charity of its superior heart. It runs a business of attraction and personalities, and simply wants you in the door as a consumer. If you happen to do a little bit of accidental free marketing by being a fan, well, bless your heart for that. Adam Silver appreciates it.

That may be assuming a lot, but the NBA at least seems to understand the slippery nature of its own presence as a content provider, not a proprietary league. You have to remain part of the conversation, and part of doing that is realizing that visibility means a lot more than just ratings. You want people to know what’s happening in the NBA even if they aren’t a fan because that kind of transcendent cultural relevance gets you the things leagues and their players blossom under: huge TV contracts, endorsements, and the continued giddy partnership with corporate America’s advertising dollars.

Speaking of cultural relevance, I am so excited for this. Jon Snow! And Daenerys! Working together with Tyrion! This is huge. I have never seen this show and read only Matt Ufford’s recaps on SB Nation instead. It’s gonna be amazing when someone tells me about it.