This NFL season is limping out of the gate. It’s apparent to anyone both observing the games and taking temperature of the reactions to them, and has manifested itself in double-digit ratings declines through three weeks of primetime games.
Taking notice of this, Yahoo’s Charles Robinson recalled Mark Cuban’s comments from 2014: “Hogs get slaughtered.” Cuban was observing that the NFL was becoming oversaturated, and risked spreading the goose that laid the golden eggs too thin.
Robinson did not ascribe the lagging interest to a lone cause. He brought up the ratings, touched on the cascade of negative PR that has befallen the league in recent years, and wondered about the impact of Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protests and the subsequent fallout. He also made note of the elephant in the room: the election. He concluded:
It’s not a slaughter yet, but the NFL has to be concerned about where this is all going. As Cuban said, there’s a line between getting fat on success or becoming a hog with greed. The NFL’s product is bigger, more saturated and more scrutinized than ever. And it might be a good time for Goodell and the owners to consider where that line is.
In no particular order, here are my two cents:
1. This election is wayyy different than other elections.
Donald Trump is a total paradigm shift. Books can and will be written about this, but things in America have gotten so divisive that, to his large and growing amount of backers, he is totally impervious to easily disproven lies and what should be massive scandals about how he’s conducted business in the past. Not only that, he’s skated by on touting his shady dealings, the implication being he can just shrewdly tell China and Mexico we’re not paying them what we owe and that will be that. And it remains impossible to look away.
Trump has gotten this far because, to much of the country, Hillary Clinton’s opposition is uninspiring. It goes without saying that she has not had a neat and tidy career in politics. Whether this is fair or not, there’s an impression that she does not convey empathy with her demeanor. Many in the middle class believe the Democrats have abandoned their interests in favor of the poles of the rich and poor. The national media does not have its finger on the pulse of rural America, where gains in the economy are not taking hold:
2. There’s also a lot of other things going on in the news.
This is all happening amidst terrorism, mass shootings (which are terrorism, but aren’t always classified as such), racial divisions, philosophical debate about the role and/or blame of law enforcement, and what amounts to mini-wars in big cities. The news is important right now, and more people are reading about and watching it. On the margins, which is where growth and declines occur in television viewership, casual observers are consuming news as a substitute for sports.
Our site’s Ty Duffy made this point in mid-August, when marquee ESPN studio programming viewership was down significantly year over year. Colin Cowherd, talking about the NFL, echoed this, pointing out that you could draw a straight line that viewers were leaving the games for cable news:
3. The NFL is lacking starpower.
Peyton Manning, who, as Jason Lisk noted last year, was a bigger individual draw than many whole franchises, is gone. Tom Brady is suspended. The primetime games that have featured the Broncos and Patriots surely would’ve rated higher if these two were involved.
There’s already been massive attrition in the starting quarterback ranks. Teddy Bridgewater is out for the year. RG3 is no longer the electric player he once was, but he’s still a lightning rod, and he’s either out for the season or merely awhile. The Bears have trotted out Brian Hoyer in two primetime games. (Tony Romo is also hurt, but his injury making way for Dak Prescott arguably has been helpful for broader interest in the Cowboys.)
J.J. Watt, who is the non-QB face of the league, was a clearly diminished player in the Texans’ primetime game against the Patriots last week, and now it has come out that he re-aggravated his back injury and could be out for the year.
Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have not played like their former MVP selves. The league is in a phase of building new star quarterbacks. Cam Newton will only grow as a draw. Andrew Luck, too, if he stays healthy. Carson Wentz looks like he might be Really Good. But these things take time, and we’re not there yet.
4. Defenses have come back in vogue.
The NFL has been a quarterback-driven league for at least the past decade. As lots of other people have noted on Twitter, the NFL’s only remaining undefeated teams are quarterbacked by Carson Wentz, Sam Bradford, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, and Jimmy Garoppolo/Jacoby Brissett.
While it is exciting that new faces, if not teams, are atop the standings, familiarity is a better ratings driver. Obviously, nobody makes Super Bowls in September, and there will be plenty of change as injuries mount and momentum ebbs and flows.
5. RedZone Channel makes standalone games feel really boring.
NFL Red Zone is too good. From kickoff until the end of the late afternoon games on Sundays, it’s straight-up crack. Action action action action action action action Action. This ironically presents a problem for the NFL, which by design of the channel, it can’t sell advertising on.
Beyond that, after taking it in, nobody is trying to sit through the jillion play stoppages that we otherwise don’t notice in NFL games. Standalones are a clearly inferior product, especially if the matchups are blah. They’re certainly not captivating enough to hold one’s undivided attention. And no matter how much NFL doth protest otherwise, Thursday night games never cease to feel like a chore.
6. The NBA might want to look in the mirror on “hogs get slaughtered”
Regular season NBA is an inconsequential slog. A team that fired their head coach in late January last year won the championship. Playing for a top seed can be detrimental to postseason health.
Despite this, the NBA is broadcasting significantly more national games this season. ESPN/ABC, which already added Saturday nights to the docket last season, is going from 90 to 100. TNT is going from 53 to 64.
And there are severe competitive balance issues. How many teams can conceivably win a championship? Is it even four? Would you bet on a Warriors-Cavs rematch in the NBA Finals, or take the field?
The NBA is lucky it will mostly miss this election, but the issues that are driving viewers from sports to news will not totally go away on November 2nd.