Reimer: Stop the nonsense, we are not witnessing the end of the NFL

Alex Reimer
November 28, 2017 - 4:28 pm

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The fervor around the NFL’s decline only seems to be intensifying during the holiday season. President Donald Trump lashed out at his new favorite boogeyman Tuesday morning, once again calling the league “weak and out of control” for allowing nearly two dozen players to kneel during the national anthem this week. 

It is the fourth time in eight days Trump has tweeted about the NFL, which he’s attacked incessantly since his “sons of bitches” diatribe in late September. For comparison’s sake, the president has mentioned his tax cut bill on Twitter just four times over that span. 

The NFL is at the epicenter of the nation’s escalating culture war, but unlike other pawns such as Starbucks holiday cups and liberal academics, it lacks a constituency. Trump supporters largely view the players as ungrateful derelicts, because a few of them kneel or sit during the anthem to highlight racial injustice. Liberals, meanwhile, tend to view the league as barbaric. Its white billionaire owners are also held in low esteem, castigated for their avarice. 

That leaves the league susceptible to shots from both sides, without the benefit of anybody besides its spokesmen playing defense. Tomi Lahren-wannabe Britt McHenry and Spike Lee both want to see the NFL burn, albeit for different reasons. 

The constant barrage of negativity creates the perception that the NFL is now on a rapid descent. It allows for keyboard philosophers like Will Leitch to write melodramatic think pieces about whether we’re witnessing the “end of the NFL.” The league has lost Bob Costas, so according to Leitch, it has also lost America. 

But it’s not only the Internet pseudo-intellectuals who are harping on the NFL’s decline. Even Peter King, who once took a grinning lobster bib photo with Roger Goodell, says it’s now time to sound the “TV ratings alarm.” In his latest “Monday Morning Quarterback” column, King cites the troubling numbers from last Monday night and Thanksgiving, which were all down between seven and 21 percent from 2016. 

Forget Costas. When the NFL has lost Peter King, it has truly lost America. 

NFL ratings have been moving downward since 2014, but the trend has intensified over the last two years. Monday night’s abomination between the Ravens and Texans reached a new ratings low, sparking an additional set of headlines across the blogosphere. 

TV executives and owners are rightfully worried about the numbers. But context gets lost amidst the hysteria. Judging by the doom and gloom commentary, one would surmise the NFL is hemorrhaging viewers. That’s just not the case.

Through last week, NFL ratings were down –– wait for it –– 5.7 percent. Leitch cites that figure in his article, apparently without irony. 

As Atlantic Magazine points out, ratings are down for everything except cable news. “The Bachelor” was the only prime-time series that aired in both 2016 and 2017 to experience an increase in viewership among people younger than 50. 

Sports, once the last remaining bastion of live TV, are finally getting hit like everything else. Over the last 10 years, the average age of people who watch sports on TV has increased across the board. The NFL’s average viewer went from 44 years old to 50. 

When presented like that, the NFL’s ratings decline seems more inevitable than disastrous. 

The positive ratings stories often get buried, too. Packers-Steelers on “Sunday Night Football,” for example, drew a 12.2 cable rating this week. The World Series averaged a 10.7 rating and the most recent NBA Finals posted an average number of 11.3

A November regular season matchup between the Packers and Steelers without Aaron Rodgers still outdraws the premier events in the NBA and MLB. Maybe the NFL isn’t as dominant as it once was. But it remains the most popular product on TV. 

There are legitimate long-term issues that threaten the league’s prosperity. The concussion story is only going to get worse, with more information coming out on a regular basis about the undeniable connection between football and brain trauma. It seems to only be a matter of time before doctors can diagnose CTE in living players. That's not good news for the NFL.  

The apparent increase in major injuries is also a major concern, and almost certainly another reason why ratings are down. Ravens-Texans would have been a lot more entertaining Monday if Deshaun Watson were under center for Houston instead of Tom Savage. Injuries, especially those to star quarterbacks, are killing the product. 

The NFL, through its cold mismanagement and heavy-handed player discipline, has alienated seemingly every fanbase in the country. So everybody is dying for the league to receive its comeuppance. But the reality is, we’re not there yet. There’s still a ways to go. 

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