For those like me who don’t have a fantasy football team (I needed a year off, ok?), it may be hard to believe that the NFL is already into Week 8. It seems like just yesterday we were gearing up for the September Super Bowl rematch between the Panthers and the Manning-less Broncos and preparing to enjoy at least a few weeks without Tom Brady making every defense look bad.
What’s even harder to believe, however, is the massive drop in the league’s TV ratings since last season. According to Sports Illustrated, Monday Night Football ratings are down 24 percent and Sunday Night Football is down 19 percent from a year ago. These trends have raised some questions about the future of a sport that has dominated TV viewership for decades, especially in light of the recent publicity of concussion-linked brain trauma among former NFL players.
College football has cracked down on violent hits above the shoulders with its “targeting” rule, disallowing a player to lead with the crown of his helmet, whether done intentionally or not. The NFL has similarly noted the seriousness of helmet-to-helmet collisions as the instant replay system has made preventing the banned form of hitting easier. The rules, while implemented for the safety of athletes, have come with a backlash among traditional football fans who claim the increase in penalties and reviews is slowing down the game. There’s not much that will enrage a middle-aged man in a recliner more than an overly long review — my dad’s shattered remote can attest to that. Slowly but surely, it seems viewers are running out of patience when it comes to football’s modern state.
Despite all of this, the pending presidential election shouldn’t be overlooked as a catalyst for the drop in ratings. With two of this year’s three presidential debates having taken place during NFL broadcasts, it’s no surprise there weren’t as many football viewers because, as much as we want to look away from Donald Trump, we can’t. Add in the fact that the two teams in the World Series have gone a combined 174 years since either won a championship, and you’ve diverted a lot of attention from the NFL.
So what does the league do with these numbers? It seems to be making clear that the athletes’ safety is more important than TV viewership, and rightly so. But how far would ratings have to drop for the NFL to begin to worry? After all, it did generate over $7 billion in TV revenue last season. The 2016 Super Bowl also attracted the eyes of 112 million, so until steeper ratings declines take place, the sport will safely control the tube. In the meantime, football fans will just have to learn to live with longer games and fewer violent hits.