In America, the Super Bowl has historically been the most popular television event of any given year. While recent years have seen a dip in viewership (more due to an overall switch to streaming rather than diminished love of the sport), football is still considered one of the great unifiers of American culture. And Sunday Night Football still reign supreme in the ratings. But, this has slowly started to change; During Super Bowl LIV (54), viewership was “only” 102 million people, up from 100.7 viewers million in 2019 but still nowhere close to the numbers in 2017 and in previous years, where viewership surpassed 111 million. The serious political and health controversies continuing to dog the NFL over recent years have caused many fans to turn away from watching professional football.
Here are three reasons why NFL is losing its appeal and why, despite recent challenges, it will remain more popular than ever.
The NFL is losing its magic
It hurts to watch
In 2017, neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee published a study examining 111 brains of former NFL football players, of which 110 were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This degenerative brain disease is associated with repeated blows to the head. It causes brain injury, memory loss, depression, dementia, liver disorder, addiction to painkillers and even suicide, all long after the blows have stopped. Showing the direct relation between these dire health consequences and playing football has changed the way lifelong fans now view NFL games. Many say it is now too difficult to watch the violence on the field without thinking about the human damage their favorite players may suffer as a direct consequence.
Players themselves, even first-draft ones like Andrew Luck, are also saying “no more” to the physical pain from football-related injuries and retiring early. Fears of brain and other injuries and long-term damage, especially resulting from on-field concussions, have also affected younger players. Compared to 2008, when participation in high-school football peaked at 1.11 million student athletes, 2017 showed a 5% decline to just 1.06 million players
Enough with the knee!
Once considered a great unifier of American society, NFL football suddenly became a political and social divider in the summer of 2016. That’s when Colin Kaepernick first sat during the national anthem to protest ongoing police brutality and the overall oppression of black people in America. Faster than you can say “Hut!” his sitting turned into kneeling, which turned into sustained (and often vitriolic) nationwide debates about race, police brutality, 1st amendment rights, and patriotism. NFL coaches, managers, sponsors and even two US presidents all weighed in, for better or for worse. Controversy continued even after the NFL passed a revised policy that mandates that players on the sidelines must stand for the national anthem or otherwise wait in the locker room. Fast forward to 2020, post-George Floyd riots (or, more accurately, because of them), and we see a more accepting, more socially and racially sensitive NFL.
However, before arriving at this more compassionate and socially aware cornerstone, a 2017 nationwide poll showed that 19% of professional football fans lost interest in the NFL. Among them, 24% said political issues caused them to turn away, with 17% specifically blaming Kaepernick and his national anthem protest. For many, NFL games – and post-game analyses – no longer provide an escape from draining politics but have turned into an unwelcome extension of it.
Let’s not forget about domestic violence
Long before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, the NFL was dealing with another scandal involving a number of its players perpetrating domestic abuse. The latest headlines show the Patriots’ receiver, Antonio Brown being accused of multiple incidents of alleged sexual assault. He is by no means the only one. In the summer of 2014, after being accused of mishandling the infamous Ray Rice incident, in which the Baltimore Ravens player was caught on video beating his then-fiancé, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced a new league policy to punish any player involved in domestic violence or sexual assault with a six-game suspension without pay. However, it was inconsistently reinforced, and even updated in 2016 with more loopholes. Since then, the NFL appears to have softened its stance, enforcing the six-game suspension against only two of 18 players publicly linked to domestic violence allegations. In response to its inconsistent and flippant attitude toward stemming domestic violence, fans (24% of those surveyed) are abandoning the NFL.
There’s no greater game
It’s anybody’s game
To many fans, the fact that 43-year-old Tom Brady abandoned the New England Patriots after 20 years for Tampa Bay Buccaneers represents the end of a dynasty. While the Patriots were victors in Super Bowl 53, their defeat the previous year against the Eagles, a team that had never before won a Super Bowl, restored hope to NFL fans everywhere that anything is possible, and that underdogs can – and do – win. The Eagles’ surprise win that year meant that team ranking does not predetermine the Super Bowl teams or champion. This, plus Brady’s departure from New England returned an air of excitement and unpredictability to the NFL, which re-energized fans, old and new alike. Not to mention that Patrick Mahomes, the youngest quarterback to ever be named a Super Bowl MVP, recently just signed a record-breaking contract extension worth $503 million. It’s a new era, indeed.
Actually, the protests have done good.
Though overshadowed by widespread negative coverage, the NFL’s national anthem protests have led to positive developments. At the beginning of 2018, the NFL announced the formation of a social justice committee to assist NFL players with promoting social justice causes and awareness for them. The committee said it would spend $100 million trying to improve education, police and community relations and the criminal justice system in NFL cities. Plus, Stephen Ross, managing general partner of the Miami Dolphins, co-chairs a national non-profit aimed at educating and empowering the sports community to improve race relations and eliminate discrimination.
Additionally, despite the criticism that Colin Kaepernick has garnered, he succeeded to create a space in which important national conversations about race could finally take place. In courageously speaking his conscience, he inspired a generation of athletes and teams – and younger fans – to speak out and peacefully address social issues. He also became a cause for activists and social rights within the NFL. In fact, Nike’s 2018 decision to use Kaepernick as their spokesman, especially with the tag line “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” sends a big message to the NFL and its fans that freedom of speech and one’s conviction should be valued, not bullied or ignored. Fast forward to 2020, and the NFL has now admitted it was wrong in its response to Kaepernick and now supports his fight against racial injustice.
The NFL embraces the digital era
Over the last decade, fantasy football is to thank for the soaring and sustained popularity of the NFL. Fantasy sports has become a massive $7 billion dollar industry; the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that of the 59 million people in the United States and Canada who play fantasy sports, 80% are playing fantasy football. People bet big money to be in fantasy football leagues and therefore have a lot riding on each NFL game. Therefore, they enthusiastically tune in to watch each of their players throughout the NFL season, even if their actual team is less than stellar. That fantasy football has become so mainstream and so intertwined with NFL football means that the latter will continue to remain as popular as ever.
The Bottom Line: While serious political, health and social issues have recently plagued the NFL, do they merit the abandonment of longtime fans, or are they overreacting? Do you still devote time to watching the NFL?