Not too long ago, I oriented my week around watching football on Sundays. I used to plan weekends so that I could fall asleep as late as possible on Saturday night just so I would have to spend as little time as possible in a pre-football world on Sunday. I was the prototypically engaged fan: I watched every game I could, procrastinated with football content during the week, and cared, personally, about football success — both for my Chicago Bears and my fantasy teams. Until, one day, I didn’t.
I realized something had changed Week 3 of this season. I was talking to my friend, a massive Jets fan, about possibly going over to watch them play the Chiefs. He replied waveringly, maybe only in that moment verbalizing his traitorous new reality. “I don’t know about you, man, but I’m kind of checked out of football this year.” I heard this, and I realized I was too. At that point I’d watched only one game; as of this writing, in Week 6, it’s been about four. What is happening?
Yes, the Bears and Jets are both bad teams. But somewhere deeper in my football-watching mind, the thrill is gone. I don’t exactly know what happened. Only that it didn’t just happen to me. It happened to all my friends. It seemed to happen to the culture at large. The last people to find out, apparently, were the poor billionaires in the NFL’s Park Avenue offices.
By the time I learned last week that the NFL’s ratings have been down significantly this season, I had already grown familiar with my strange new disengagement from this decade’s national obsession. Realizing this was not confined to me, I started reading opinions on why the NFL’s ratings had declined. Sure enough, nothing clarified the situation like dipping into the sophomoric, those-who-can’t world of sports journalism. Mostly because I read a lot of what is precisely not the problem with the NFL.
First, to address one popular explanation: No, it is not Colin Kaepernick. Or at least, not from where I sit.
For those unfamiliar, Kaepernick is a middling quarterback who made headlines this offseason by declining to stand up for the national anthem. His cause, which he defended readily and bravely, was to protest American law enforcement’s treatment of black people; shorthand might call it an act of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Many people in the conservative world of American football were outraged by his protest, and the theory goes, still are. NFL executives don’t blame him for turning viewers away, but many writers do. It’s one commonly-discussed reason for why ratings are down.
Dig into who’s saying this, though and argument starts to look a lot like an exclusively right-wing fantasy. The only ones really animated by Kaepernick are people like Joe Walsh, anonymous Tea Party gristle and failed congressional candidate from Illinois.
Yeah, fuck you, guy.
So far rightward must you go to find spokesmen for this anti-Kaepernick theory that Sporting News’s Michael McCarthy had to present Rush Limbaugh as somebody with a valid opinion.
I don’t believe the Rasmussen poll that recently suggested a third of all respondents were tuning out the NFL because of Black Lives Matter protests. True, this country can never un-see what we’ve learned this year about our lingering racial animosity, but if there’s one institution strong enough to withstand the tectonic shifting of American racial politics, it’s the NFL — a league that is 70% black yet still seems to appeal to all those angry white men.
In general, the theory just doesn't pass the sniff test. The NFL’s entire mystique is that it has become mandatory, appointment viewing for the American sports fan. Losing twenty percent of that audience isn’t just a few bros flipping something else on; it’s changing the very meaning of fall Sundays for millions of fans. That’s not the kind of habit people break over a passing controversy. NFL broadcasts don’t show the national anthem, either, so the protests haven’t even been onscreen. Plus, when was the last time controversy tuned people out? Usually, the more noisome the display, the more we want to see of it. And anyway, there’s a good chance that however many people are turned off by this protest, a similar number are attracted to it. Colin Kaepernick’s #7 is the best-selling jersey this season, currently topping the list in seven states, including California, which has four goddamn teams. Political controversy doesn’t cut one way.
Other explanations for the ratings drop are more plausible. The games have indeed been bad and the election has indeed been captivating. (As has this MLB postseason.) Major-market teams aren’t doing well. Cord-cutting has had a huge impact on official ratings, a reality the NFL is making more painful by enforcing a digital strategy imported from fifteen years ago.
But the NFL enforces a lot of strange things, don’t they? Capricious suspensions. Penalties that make games unnecessarily long. Pedantic rules that ensure the league stays as vanilla as possible. I haven’t seen any of this mentioned as a reason for the ratings drop.
It should be.
If the league wants to figure out why the sun is setting on its golden era, it should take a look at how unwatchable football games have become. Possibly beyond a tipping point.
Last season, the average NFL game lasted 3 hours and 9 minutes, an all-time high. That would be sixty minutes of clock time and 11 minutes of actual football spread over a full third of a winter day. For non-fans, yes: it is as painful to sit through as it sounds. Even baseball features over 50% more live action during a game. In a world that’s speeding up, the NFL should be finding ways to speed up with it.
Instead, they’re slowing down for dumb reasons. For one thing, there are almost as many 30-second commercials (112) as there are plays in an average game (130). Official reviews prioritize on-field ceremony over game tempo. Then you have penalties.
Oh, my lord, the penalties. They are constant. Unrelenting. Insufferable.
It’s amusing to think that the NFL is trying to take a sport international when an uninitiated viewer would surmise that its players literally don’t understand how the game is played. About a third of all flags are pre-snap infractions, or as I call them, 40-second bouts of horseshit designed to murder my attention span. False start! Illegal formation! Who gives a fuck? But rather than try to curtail these penalties, the league has them on the rise. So watch out for more exciting stoppages due to a wide receiver’s failure to cover the line of scrimmage. Gladiatorial ballet my ass.
Finally, atop this parade of non-entertaining triviality is the fact that every year the NFL goes a little further in stamping out displays of individual charisma. For a league that covered up devastating research on player health for years, it sure cares about proper comportment when it comes to on-field celebrations. About a decade ago it prohibited spiking the ball on non-touchdown plays for the laughable reason that it caused the game to slow down. Then they banned any touchdown celebration that involved choreography. This year, to satiate fans’ thirst for yet more penalties and yet less on-field individuality, the No Fun League has instructed referees to throw an unprecedented number of “taunting” flags, increasing the frequency of that bullshit by an astounding 220%. These flags have been called for obscenities such as dropping the ball, flexing biceps, twerking, and “shooting a bow and arrow.” Click any of those links if you don’t believe how egregious this moralizing tyranny is. Worst of all are the spineless announcers forced to corroborate it:
And there are seriously people out there who wonder why ratings are down?
To make fun of the draconian new rules, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins did a touchdown dance Sunday in the only way he’s still allowed:
So it’s official: the league’s governance is a joke, loathed by its players and much of its audience. Whatever the reason for our present ratings dip, it’s bad news for the organization when every single football fan I’ve talked to about it has rejoiced with me that ding-dong, the NFL is toast.
If you’re wondering how it’s possible for the league to commit such clueless suicide, remember that it is a $10 billion private industry controlled by 32 rich guys. They’re not trying to turn us off; they’re just as out-of-touch as every other oligarchic, regressive, unsavvy monolith. These owners have more in common with Hosni Mubarak than with me — and we know what happens to guys like that.
So ignore those anti-Black Lives Matter people fantasizing that crusty rednecks are behind the NFL’s diminished ratings. Ignore all the sports pundits blaming the slow shift away from football at the youth level. Do, instead, what I’ve started to do: ignore the NFL in general. Declare your independence from meaningless infractions and poorly-packaged sports television. If you find yourself lonely, far away from the center of the American sports galaxy, don’t worry. You probably won’t feel lonely for long.
photo credit: Keith Allison