by Chris Foss
In 2010, as NFL players and ownership geared up for what would become the most acrimonious collective bargaining agreement (CBA) dispute in decades, one of my graduate school friends called football a “golden goose” owners had to be careful not to harm. Since then, however, it seems all the NFL can do is blunder, and after years of rising attendance and viewership, declining TV ratings in 2016 may have finally started to make the suits a bit nervous. This week, I outline the ways in which the golden goose is tarnishing, discuss the reasons behind the NFL’s struggles, and suggest some common-sense solutions for the league’s problems.
The NFL dodged a bullet when it emerged from a spring/summer lockout in 2011 having only lost part of training camp and the Hall of Fame preseason game. After that, league attendance continued to be strong, and TV ratings rose. The on-the-field product continued to be good, particularly during the playoffs, culminating in New England’s come-from-behind overtime win in the Super Bowl in February. Even in the worst-played Super Bowl in the era (Carolina vs. Denver in 2015), Peyton Manning at least walked off into the sunset with a ring. The league’s financial health has also been strong, as TV contracts and salaries continue to rise in value
Unintended consequences also emerged from that CBA, however. One of the least-noticed features of the deal reduced player-coach offseason contact time and eliminated two-a-days from training camp. At the time, this seemed a common-sense, player-friendly move. The change arguably led, however, to poorer regular-season play and more injuries. Players and teams exposed to less rigorous training camp and offseason workouts (OTAs) get a rude awakening during the preseason and even the regular season. Defenses especially had it tough in the early years of the CBA—limited also by rules changes favoring offenses—but the entire league has been hard-hit by injuries in recent years.
The new CBA also ushered in an era where the NFL has attempted to dominate the sports conversation year-round, not just during the regular season. The NFL Draft has become a multiday event, with its first day in primetime, and now moves around the country to attract attention in big markets like Chicago and Philadelphia. Free agency, OTAs, and training camp are breathlessly covered online and on TV. The spectacle of ESPN’s Adam Schefter answering a free agency-related phone call on-air earlier this spring—and the network promoting it—shows how out of control the media’s obsession about the NFL has become. Twitter streamed games last year, and now Amazon will pick up that mantle. As for TV, the NFL got greedy in 2014 by adding Thursday night primetime games on CBS, then doubling that package last year by including NBC. This move enraged players, coaches, and many fans who see this as further reducing the special quality of the game.
A more obvious sign of trouble is the continued concussion and player safety debate that the league cannot shake. There is good news: more players are being pulled off the field by referees and independent neurologists to be checked after hard hits, out of an abundance of caution. Players concerned about their long-term health are taking the proactive step of retiring early. The bad news, though, is that ex-players from the league’s days of playing on unforgiving Astroturf and in the pre-concussion awareness era are in the news regularly. This challenge was dramatically highlighted when ex-Charger and Patriot Junior Seau took his own life in May 2012, and by the 2015 Will Smith film Concussion. The league’s settlement with pre-2014 players is expensive: it could pay out as much as $5 million apiece to individuals diagnosed with the particularly lethal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Relatives of deceased players whose brains were found to have evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) could receive up to $4 million. Eleven thousand ex-players have already pre-registered for benefits under the settlement. It’s good that the NFL is finally helping its retirees, but every time an old legend is diagnosed with ALS or reports memory problems, the league’s image takes another hit and some casual fans get turned off.
TV ratings show some evidence of erosion. After a seemingly endless rise, viewing numbers declined in 2016, especially in the early months of the season. The presidential campaign was trotted out as a reason: the league contended that similar declines occurred during prior political seasons, and the ratings did recover after Election Day. Overall, however, ratings were down for 2016, and average Super Bowl viewership declined for the second year in a row, the first time that has happened since a three-year slide in the mid-90s. Fans may have been distracted by Donald Trump, but they may have also responded to concussion concerns, poor early-season play, oversaturation, and the moving of teams around the league like pieces on a chessboard.
Franchise movement in 2016-17 made the league seem tone-deaf to many of its stakeholders and fans. To them, the almighty dollar is the only thing the NFL worships, and that is perhaps no more plainly seen than in the moves of the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers to Los Angeles, and the all-but-a-done-deal move of the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. Understandably fed-up voters in St. Louis and San Diego said “no, thanks” to raising taxes to sink public money into new stadiums, so those teams’ owners and the league stuck it to those fan bases and went for the money elsewhere. If the fans don’t follow the teams on their moves, however, those clubs could be in for a rude awakening down the road; so could the league as a whole, when the game of shuffle-your-buns played by aggrieved billionaire owners turns off fans, understandably tired of feeling like a rock in a hard place when it comes to the choice between losing their team or getting gouged at tax time.
The golden goose is not yet cooked, though: the NFL should undertake measures to curb its decline. Firstly, the league needs to do a better job of promoting its good guys. Damaging headlines regarding Aaron Hernandez-types, domestic violators, and primadonnas will continue to surface, but teams and players need to show the good they do for their communities. Those teams and players who don’t do enough for their cities, meanwhile, need to get out there more, whether through active community service or giving money to charity—in the latter case, particularly those on the high end of the wage scale. In a similar vein, owners need to come out of the skybox and interact with the community on the ground, to show their home cities that they are more than pawns to be shuffled when the first crack shows in the stadium façade.
In terms of its broadcast presence, the NFL would be smart to dial things back. More games could be made available in the streaming and social media areas that are likely venture capital for the league, particularly during the sleepier early-season months. The league’s Thursday Night Football venture, however, should either be curtailed or ended altogether. None of these games, apart from (maybe) the Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary contest in Detroit in 2015, have been remotely memorable, and they are almost universally loathed. NFL games need to be special events again, and the more dates that have games on them, the less of an “event” is pro football. The league was wise during the last CBA negotiation not to raise the number of regular-season games; owners should show similar wisdom on this issue.
Finally, it might be time for a change in leadership. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been a polarizing figure during his tenure: beloved by owners (except, perhaps, Robert Kraft), hated by players and most fans. A milder, quieter presence at the top who projects the image of being a player’s commissioner—think an Adam Silver type—might be just what the doctor ordered in a league where the deck already seems stacked toward the billionaires. The new commissioner should institute better care for retired players and more on-the-field safety measures to stem the tide of injuries, and might consider at least a temporary moratorium on franchise relocation. At least giving fans and players the impression that there’s someone at the top who cares about them would go a way toward stemming what appears to be an inexorable—if slow—decline in the quality and public perception of the NFL.
 http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2685400-nfl-tv-ratings-reportedly-down-8-percent-for-2016-17-season and the references list at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Super_Bowl_TV_ratings.
 Shuffle-your-buns is a game my middle school students sometimes play: one person in the middle of the circle points out a quality (sometimes mildly derogatory) about some of the other students, who then must “shuffle their buns” to another seat. Needless to say, this game is polarizing among the student body, and seems an apt metaphor for the way the NFL moves teams.
 Alas, it might be too much to ask a new commissioner to block Tony Romo from the CBS broadcast team, another recent move causing polarization and outrage among some fans and analysts.