Is the NFL losing its appeal?

By Rachel Segal
 Getty /Peter Aiken
In America, the Super Bowl is the most popular television event of any given year. In fact, 19 of the 20 most-watched television shows of all time are Super Bowl broadcasts. But, this has started to change; this year, viewership for Super Bowl LII (52) was down 7% from 2017 and was the lowest TV audience since Super Bowl 2009. The serious political and health controversies dogging the NFL over the last year and a half 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 has lost 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.


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 have all weighed in, for better or for worse.  Though he admirably raised important issues, fans didn’t appreciate how his way of doing so affected the game.

The result? A nationwide poll last year showed that 19% of professional football fans have lost interest in the NFL. Among them, 24% say political issues have 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 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. Since 2000, at least 84 NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence. 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 Patriots’ loss in Super Bowl LII, plus the fact that 40-year-old Tom Brady may be nearing retirement, represents the end of a dynasty. This was the Patriots’ third Super Bowl appearance in four seasons, and their tenth overall, eight of which since 2001. That they lost to the Eagles, which has never before won a Super Bowl, restores hope to NFL fans everywhere and signifies that anything is possible, that underdogs can – and do – win. The Eagles’ surprise win means that team ranking does not predetermine the Super Bowl teams or champion. This has returned an air of excitement and unpredictability to the NFL, which has re-energized fans, old and new alike.


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 will spend $100 million trying to improve education, police and community relations and the criminal justice system in NFL cities.

Additionally, despite the criticism that Colin Kaepernack has garnered, he succeeded to create a space in which important national conversations about race can finally take place. In courageously speaking his conscience, he has inspired a generation of athletes – and younger fans – to speak out and peacefully address social issues.


The NFL embraces the digital era

Over the last decade, fantasy football is to thank for the soaring and sustained popularity of the NFL. It has become a massive $19 billion business industry;  the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that of the 57 million people in the United States and Canada who play fantasy sports, 40 million alone 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 most Sundays to watching the NFL?

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