Editor’s Corner—The NFL’s TV ratings woes aren’t about anthem protests, they’re about a fumbled soul

(NFL Films)
Dan Frankel
Has the league that brought us The Snake, Mean Joe Greene, Hollywood Henderson, Neon Dion, The Refrigerator and the Punky QB Known as McMahon lost its soul?

That’s the conclusion of advertising agency Horizon Media, which began surveying consumers earlier this winter in an effort to tap into what’s really going on with the NFL’s two-season-long TV ratings decline. (Hat tip to Ad Age for reporting on the Horizon study.) 

As pay TV's last remaining predictable driver of a mass live audience, the fate of the NFL audience base is of keen interest to the video industry. 

Horizon found that the political canards regarding national anthem protests and the emergence of CTE have less to do with the overall dissonance than a general souring on the game of pro football. 

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“The real reason for decreased engagement is that the NFL has lost some of its heart and connection to its fanbase,” said Horizon Media CMO Stephen Hall. “Politics is a scapegoat—it’s the easiest thing for people to point to as a reason for decreased interest in the NFL in general and tuning into games, specifically.”

Having fallen asleep during the first 30 minutes of this month’s Super Bowl, I find this superinteresting.

Horizon said that 65% of those it surveyed said they’re watching less football because it presents a “less family-friendly” proposition these days. There’s been a focus on player domestic violence in recent years, highlighted by the shocking video of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in an elevator.

Of course, the Rice incident wasn’t the first or last time an NFL player had been involved in an incident of domestic violence. But having it caught on video certainly amplified the effect.

And as Horizon also notes, fans have misgivings about how the league is responding to these incidents of criminal behavior. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had to battle the players' union to hand Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott a six-game suspension for allegedly beating his girlfriend three times in one week. But Elliott’s teammate, Randy Gregory, was suspended for an entire year for testing positive for marijuana. (Sure, it was Gregory’s sixth such offense. But still, the contrast with Elliott’s much more grave transgression is stark.)

But here’s what I think is really interesting. 

Horizon said that 61% of survey respondents think the league has become too “businesslike” and commercial. Indeed, in an era in which Goodell was just given a raise to $49.5 million a year, the NFL is now long on advanced analytics and avoiding distractions. But it’s critically short on the colorful characters that made it must-see TV for decades.

I’ll provide my own example here:

As it was last season … and the season before that … and the one before that … a key driving narrative for the NFL season is the venerable yet polarizing New England Patriots, who through genius, talent, hard work and sometimes questionable methods have managed to defy the oppressive gravity of the NFL salary cap and remain Super Bowl contenders for 17 years running. It’s an incredible accomplishment, unmatched by any modern pro sports team. I suspect it’s also beginning to bore some people. 

The man who runs the Patriots, Bill Belichick, is famously taciturn, holding a cowed sports media at a notoriously contentious arms' length. Belichick controls nearly everything. Consider that 30 years ago, we wondered whether Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka would be able to control himself long enough to not throw a punch at his defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan. 

The Patriots’ star quarterback, Tom Brady, is a classically chiseled monk of pro football, religiously controlling his diet and training, as well as what information gets out on his marriage to a supermodel. A season ago, when Brady and the Patriots deftly shrugged off the quarterback’s four-game suspension for allegedly deflating footballs, the sports media fixated on the possible very subtle digs the defiant Brady might be taking at Commissioner Goodell, who handed down that suspension. 

Contrast this to Ditka’s quarterback on the colorful ’86 Chicago Bears, Jim McMahon, a classic rebel who famously poked Pete Rozelle by writing the commissioner’s name on his headband. There was nothing subtle about that. Or how about Joe Namath notoriously guaranteeing an upset over the Colts in ’69? Would Brady ever do something like that? Would any quarterback in the league do that now?

The long-running—and very legit—narrative about the Patriots remains how Belichick and Brady have miraculously reached eight Super Bowls together in a hard-cap era in which few other teams have managed to play in even two. Belichick’s brilliance for continuously replenishing the roster of players around Brady has been stridently celebrated. We get to kind of know the more colorful of these players, like star tight end Rob Gronkoski, before their salary demands, age and mileage lead Belichick to push them off the stage, replacing them with another brilliant pick found in the later rounds of the draft. 

The Patriots' battle-tested system doesn’t necessarily encourage self-expression. In the modern NFL, nobody wants a “distraction.” For reasons Belichick would not disclose, star cornerback Malcolm Butler became one in the recent Super Bowl two weeks ago and was notoriously benched for most of the game. Can you imagine a very self-expressive high performer like Deion Sanders starring in Belichick’s system? Kenny Stabler? 

Or how about Max McGee, a fourth-string receiver who famously overcame a vicious hangover to help Vince Lombardi’s Packers win the very first Super Bowl back in ’67? Would McGee ever get off Belichick’s bench to tell that story?

Interestingly, 49% of Horizon survey respondents said they weren’t satisfied with the current state of the NFL on-field product. 

Ironically, I recently watched a replay of the Jets’ famous ’69 upset of the Colts on YouTube. I was shocked at how simplistic the schemes and formations were; how slow everyone was, and how all the players had vastly less chiseled bodies. Just a hunch, but I bet last season’s 0-16 Cleveland Browns would destroy those ’69 Jets. 

Indeed, like your average chain restaurant, the NFL produces a tasty, highly predictable meal, short on surprises. The potential for witnessing disaster, such as a TV network cutting from a huge comeback to show “Pippy Longstocking,” is less than ever. So is the possibility of seeing anything historic or truly interesting.