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How the NFL can help save itself from itself

The league isn’t facing quite the cataclysmic scenario some predict, but there are at least 5 things it can do to preserve its future.

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When the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 52, 103.4 million people tuned in.

It was the ninth consecutive year the Super Bowl drew north of 100 million viewers, a number that only Super Bowls and the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H have ever managed to top in the United States. And yet, the game came at the end of a year that saw the NFL’s image slump. Or several years, really.

At a time when the NFL is trying to navigate concussion concerns and its self-inflicted fumbling of issues like domestic violence, the league finds itself in the middle of political controversy, too. More than two years after Colin Kaepernick began to protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem, President Donald Trump has made it a perpetually divisive debate about patriotism.

Meanwhile, the NFL’s total attendance also dropped from 2016 to 2017. (About half of the decline came via the Chargers, who moved from a stadium that sat more than 70,000 to one with just 27,000 seats.)

Though things may seem grim for the NFL, it’s still far and away the most popular sports league in the United States, and a major money maker. But there are cracks in its foundation, and the perception that the league’s future is in trouble could be a problem in and of itself. If the league wants to continue its dominance, it needs to be proactive about making changes before things come crumbling down.

1. Ratings aren’t plummeting, but it’s time to embrace the digital age

Long before Kaepernick began his protest in August 2016, Trump was lambasting the NFL for “boring games” that were causing ratings to drop “big league.” The NFL was fine then, and it’s still as profitable as ever.

In the more than two dozen times Trump has tweeted about the NFL since he took office in January 2017, he’s said multiple times that the league’s television ratings are “way down.” He has repeated the claim at rallies and insists that player protests are the reason for the loss in viewership.

The reality is a little different.

Ratings are falling across all broadcast television as viewer habits change and alternative ways to watch entertainment pop up. The NFL had a more moderate ratings dip than the rest of television in 2017, giving little evidence that protests were the reason behind it.

Compared to the rest of television, the NFL is doing great.

Networks are still paying record-breaking amounts for the right to show NFL programming, too.

“You either have the most-watched content on television, or you don’t have it,” Fox Networks CEO Peter Rice said in February of the company’s decision to shell out $3.3 billion for Thursday night games over the next five years.

The decline of broadcast television as the predominant way to consume entertainment should still give the NFL pause, though. If television networks become less willing to dive into bidding wars, the NFL will need digital buyers like Amazon, Facebook, Verizon, YouTube, and Twitter to hop into the mix.

Twitter purchased streaming rights to Thursday games for $10 million in 2016, and Amazon won those rights for $50 million in 2017. In April, Amazon re-upped the deal, presumably for even more, through the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Will those numbers hold up? It’s tough to be optimistic about that if television continues to sink, and the changing ways fans consume football doesn’t help either.

One of the most popular ways to watch the sport now is through NFL RedZone, a channel that provides a constant stream of highlights. Fans can stay updated on what’s happening around the league on Sunday, it also means fewer will sit down for an entire broadcast of one game.

But especially as more viewers become cord-cutters, the NFL can use highlights to continue to expand its base digitally.

The NFL is notoriously stingy about its clips circulating on the internet. In 2016, it passed a new policy that would fine teams as much as $100,000 for sharing highlights on social media — a rule that a few teams openly mocked on Twitter.

It could take a cue from the NBA, which has seen surging popularity while riding social media to the top. “We have always believed that fans sharing highlights via social media is a great way to drive interest and excitement in the NBA,” Mike Bass, the NBA’s executive vice president of communications, told the Washington Post in 2015. “Our enforcement efforts are not aimed at fans, but rather are focused on the unauthorized live streaming of our games.”

The NFL hasn’t felt the same and has continuously cracked down on it, even after relaxing its rigid social media policy. But as fans continue to watch sports in less traditional ways, the league needs to find ways to drum up interest through other means.

2. Politics are unavoidable, so just keep your hands off, NFL

At the beginning of training camp for the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, Calif., quarterback Dak Prescott told reporters that they shouldn’t expect to see him kneeling during the national anthem.

“I never protest,” Prescott told The Dallas Morning News. “I never protest during the anthem, and I don’t think that’s the time or the venue to do so.”

Days later, artist Trey Wilder painted a mural in Dallas that depicted Prescott as the main character of Get Out, the Academy Award-winning movie about systemic racism.

It didn’t take long for the mural of Prescott to be defaced.

“You know what, it’s already done its job,” Wilder told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “So, it really didn’t matter.”

Wilder is a fan of the Cowboys, which has one of the most conservative fan bases in the NFL, and said he received positive feedback along with a fair share of negativity about his mural. And what makes things particularly challenging for the NFL is exactly that: There is very little political consensus for the league’s fan base. Even among Cowboys fans, there are plenty who staunchly defend players’ rights to protest during the national anthem.

In a study conducted by FiveThirtyEight, interest in particular sports leagues was measured against Trump’s vote share in the 2016 election. While NASCAR and college football were disproportionately popular in areas that supported Trump, and the NBA, MLB, and NHL were more popular in areas that didn’t vote for Trump, the NFL was close to dead even.

In January, a Gallup poll showed football is still America’s favorite sport to watch by a wide margin, regardless of gender, age, race, or political ideology. While the number of respondents who picked football slipped from 43 percent to 37 over the last decade, it’s still far more popular than basketball, which finished second with 11 percent.

So the NFL was put in a bind when Trump turned Kaepernick’s peaceful protest into a debate about proper conduct during the playing of the national anthem, and what it says about one’s patriotism. With many fans threatening to boycott, the league even hired a polling firm to ask fans about their thoughts on Kaepernick and the protests.

But polling on the issue isn’t as simple as asking fans whether or not the protests will cause them to tune out.

“When you ask people a question like that, everyone knows that it has turned into a political issue; it may be more driven by their personal politics than their actual desire to watch or not watch,” says Elly Alboim, a professor at Carleton University and a public opinion research specialist. “They may sense that there’s an answer that’s more appropriate or more synchronous with their political beliefs, and since there’s no cost to them, they may very well be issuing a political statement rather than a real viewing intention.

“So you can imagine, for instance, a number of right-wing potential viewers who believe that someone kneeling during the national anthem is unpatriotic, who will cheerfully tell someone on the phone that, If they keep doing that I won’t watch. But they’re really saying they don’t like the behavior, they’re not really saying they won’t watch.”

And with political leanings so evenly split among NFL fans, the appeasement of one group raises the possibility of frustrating another. Many celebrated the league’s passing of a new national anthem policy in May, which required all players who came out of the locker room prior to games to stand for the national anthem. But public backlash was part of the reason the policy was put on hold in July.

It’s something that’s not going away no matter what the NFL does, and it won’t be the last political issue that seeps into the game.

“There has been a political culture war raging in the NFL for a long time, and now Donald Trump has turned a good part of the right against the NFL. Much of the left was suspicious of it already. So there was no respite, really,” Mark Leibovich, author of Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times said of the league, via NBC Sports’ Peter King.

Activism among athletes is on the rise as well, and the NFL won’t do itself any favors by trying to control the message.

In January, the NFL announced an initiative for a commitment to social justice, but the league’s attempts to restrict what players say and how they say it have only caused problems. It’s been frustrating for players who have seen the methods of their protests become the center of debate and conversation, rather than their messages.

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins has been one of the most outspoken NFL players for criminal justice reform and shared his frustrations in a silent press conference in June. He held up signs with facts about racial inequality and reasons for criminal justice reform, and repeatedly held up one that said, “YOU AREN’T LISTENING.” It’s a message he also wore on a shirt in preseason.

The NFL could help those players be heard and promote their causes rather than work to silence them. By supporting them, the NFL could help cut through the noise and send a message to the players that they are right to fight racial inequality.

3. Finding more fans outside the United States is one way to expand its base

No, a team isn’t going to relocate to London any time soon, but the league’s presence outside the U.S. has grown. Since 2007, the NFL has held at least one regular season game per year in London for its International Series. In the last few years, that number has increased to three or four games each season, along with another one in Mexico City.

That has fueled speculation that a team — with the Jacksonville Jaguars at the top of the list — will eventually find a full-time home overseas.

Travel and scheduling would be a nightmare for the team, and there are questions about whether London fans would even like a team of their own. But that doesn’t mean the league’s campaign outside the United States isn’t having serious success.

“There’s a booming popularity, I’d say,” says Zoltan Paksa, a native Hungarian who became a fan of the Jaguars nearly 20 years ago. “In just Hungary, there are two division leagues of American football right here so it’s quite booming.”

Paksa discovered the Jaguars in the ‘90s when he stumbled upon a German broadcast of an NFL game. The funny-sounding team name drew him in, and the internet allowed him to become a diehard member of the fan base. It also gave him a front row seat to the NFL’s growing popularity in Hungary and the rest of Europe.

“When they started broadcasting Super Bowls, the Panthers-Patriots Super Bowl [in 2004] was the first one in Hungary broadcasted live. In the next season, they started to broadcast one or two games, like the Monday night game. And by the year it seems like more and more and more games are broadcasted live.”

The NFL is becoming more accessible for the rest of the world, which mitigates the league’s problem if its popularity begins waning in the United States.

And what does the rest of the world think of the debate about protesting during the anthem?

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Paksa says. “In Hungarian broadcasts it’s not brought up much. In chat rooms we speak about it, but I don’t think it’s an issue for most European fans. It’s an American issue. I follow U.S. politics very closely and I notice what people say about the subject, but I think I’m the exception to the rule.”

In many ways, the global audience is a fresh set of eyes. While so many Americans are split on the handling of protests during the national anthem, and upset that rule changes have made the sport look different, international fans aren’t as concerned.

So how can the league continue to make headway globally? Paksa thinks they need to just keep doing what they’re doing.

“I think three or four [international] games per year with different teams is a good way to promote the sport, in general,” Paksa says. “I think doing more than that might not work. People may want a [full-time] European team, but I don’t think it would work.”

Getting the rest of the world actively involved could help, too. In 2017, the NFL instituted the International Player Pathway programthen expanded it in 2018 — clearing the way for players from other countries to have a chance to earn a spot on an NFL roster.

There’s a world’s worth of eyeballs that can be targeted, and the league has discussed China and Germany as future hosts of games. It’s a path the NFL should continue to follow.

4. Don’t forget about women

In 2014, Blythe Brumleve, a magazine editor and Jaguars fan, was approached about being part of the first football radio show in the country hosted entirely by women. Four years later, Helmets and Heels is still going strong on 1010XL in Jacksonville. And no, you don’t have to be a woman to appreciate the conversation.

“It’s the same content we would discuss with anybody. I think that’s the beauty of the show is that these are normal football conversations,” Brumleve says. “Just by the nature of sports radio, I would imagine the majority of the listening body is male. But we’re hoping that might change.”

In a Gallup poll released in January, 32 percent of female respondents said football was their favorite sport to watch, well ahead of basketball, which finished second with 13 percent of the responses.

But even though a significant amount of its fan base is made up of women — as much as 45 percent, according to a league spokesperson — the NFL has long marketed football with testosterone and masculinity as defining traits of the sport, and with men as the target audience. Promoting the sport to women hasn’t been treated like a priority, and if it has, it’s often come across as pandering.

“It’s improved, but I don’t necessarily think they do a great job at [reaching women],” Brumleve says. “It was just a handful of years ago where the only women’s merchandise you could buy in the store was pinkwashed or covered in sequins.

“I saw a girl was watching football on a live stream last week and she got a targeted ad for Maybelline. And that was sort of groundbreaking because women are now starting to get targeted ads on NFL programming, which is great.”

In the last three years, the NFL has held a women’s summit during Super Bowl week, although that, too, has missed the mark. But involvement from pioneers like coaches Jen Welter, Kathryn Smith, Collette Smith, and Katie Sowers, NFL official Sarah Thomas, and ESPN broadcaster Beth Mowins makes women part of the conversation and active members of the sport.

The NFL’s struggle to properly handle domestic violence — while not exclusively a problem for female fans — is among the factors that have hindered the league’s reputation. It came to a boiling point in 2014 when Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended just two games, despite video that showed him knocking his then-fiancé out with a punch.

Stiffer punishments for domestic violence have been added. There’s now a six-game suspension standard for first-time offenders, but the NFL has still had missteps. Former Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended just one game in 2016 after his wife told police she had been abused by Brown in more than 20 incidents.

The NFL has been inconsistent in handling other punishment, too. In June of this year, Jameis Winston was suspended just three games after a league investigation found the Buccaneers quarterback touched an Uber driver inappropriately.

The optics of the NFL’s punishments are that it’s a league that doesn’t take violence against women seriously. That’s something that could be remedied if the league would take a consistent, hardline approach when players are found to have mistreated women.

There are also much easier ways to encourage more women to be NFL fans.

“The damn purse rule is one of the dumbest rules in sports,” Brumleve says. “It specifically targets female fans and I don’t think it needs to exist. There’s places like DisneyWorld that let in thousands of people every single day and they don’t have a purse rule.”

The rule, passed in 2013, allows you to bring belongings in your pockets, a hand-sized clutch purse, or a clear plastic bag. It’s not as prominent an issue, or nearly as serious as others, but it’s a small step. The NFL should be doing all it can not to discourage women fans from attending games, or from watching them.

5. Find the happy medium between football and safety

Before Trump took the NFL to task for protests, his predecessor had other concerns about the game.

“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” Barack Obama said in an interview with The New Republic in 2013. “And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.”

How many other mothers and fathers feel the same way and have prevented young athletes from playing the sport? There has been a steady decline in youth tackle football participation, although rising costs, sport specialization, and growing interest in flag football are factors, too.

Just a few years ago, “Jacked Up” was a popular segment during ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcasts, showing the best and most violent hits of the week. Now, the NFL has to face the reality that violence can’t be its selling point.

In 2017, an American Medical Association study of 111 brains of former NFL players found chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 110 of then. Head injuries aren’t the only issue, either. In December, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier needed spinal stabilization surgery after attempting to make a tackle with the top of his helmet leading the way. Three months later, the league passed a new policy that aims to take head-first collisions out of football.

Like many of its other challenges, the NFL has no way to win with everybody. Many players, coaches, and fans have bemoaned the new rule. The 49ersRichard Sherman even called it “idiotic,” but the NFL was facing the reality that people would continue to shy away from a sport that is leaving far too many of its alumni with brain trauma.

After two weeks of seeing the rule in action during the preseason, the NFL Competition Committee decided it is here to stay. And there are some who are fine with that. Patriots coach Bill Belichick said tackling with the crown of the helmet is fundamentally ineffective anyway, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin sounded unconcerned about his team’s ability to adjust to the new standards.

“Enforcing safety rules, however imperfect, is but a minor inconvenience to endure toward protecting one’s cognitive health,” said Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr., President & CEO of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, in a statement in August.

Alex Ross-Zamora is a 49ers fan who lives just outside of San Francisco. He says he watches less football for reasons including the league’s treatment of Kaepernick, punishments that are often harsher for marijuana users than they are for domestic abusers, and concussions.

“The whole thing with Kaepernick happened right around the same time Chris Borland, who was a rookie linebacker for the 49ers, retired after his rookie year,” Ross-Zamora says. “[Borland] basically said that there were problems with the NFL with concussion risks that were totally being ignored, and I think for him to have all that and just walk away, that really resonated with me.

“I’m a big soccer fan, too, and when being a fan of the NFL makes me uncomfortable, I can just turn my attention to soccer. I know that’s not just me. I have other friends who enjoy soccer who are the same way. I think that’s who they’re really losing out on, unfortunately.”

Of course, concussions are not limited to football — other sports, including soccer, deal with them, too. However, there’s increased visibility and, perhaps, preventability in football.

But there continues to be a tug of war: On one side, there are those who pine for the big hits that helped fuel football’s rise to the pinnacle of sports entertainment; on the other are those who, like Ross-Zamora, feel increasing guilt about supporting a product that left so many with debilitating health issues. The NFL’s impossible task is finding the middle ground.

Violence isn’t what makes football special, but it’s also a part of the game that can’t be completely eliminated. The only way for the NFL to make it a sustainable sport for the future is to keep trying to find ways to make it safer for its players.

The NFL isn’t going to disappear any time soon, or possibly, ever. Even during its rockiest times, it’s still a behemoth in this country. There are still legions of hardcore fans who count down the days until fall so they can put on their favorite jerseys and watch football for over 10 hours straight on Sundays.

“It may look like it’s in crisis, but at the same time we’re still talking about the NFL, we’re still talking about football in America,” Ross-Zamora says. “I really don’t think they have to do anything they don’t want to, because no matter what people are going to want to watch their football and they’ll get it where they can.”

There’s also a multi-billion-dollar fantasy football industry — as well as a potentially huge market for gambling on the NFL — that ensures the league isn’t going anywhere. But there are also unique and unprecedented hurdles that are becoming increasingly difficult to clear.

If the NFL refuses to change, it’ll face the danger of becoming a niche sport like mixed martial arts or NASCAR that no longer have the same mainstream appeal they once did.

The NFL has been the unimpeachable king of sports entertainment in the United States for decades. While its most ravenous consumers will prop it up, the league has to be flexible or it runs the risk of losing its place atop the throne.

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