Still America’s Most Popular Sport?

After 256 Regular Season games, and 10 playoff games the NFL is down to its final two teams for Super Bowl 52 in Minneapolis.  The Patriots and Eagles have survived to the finish line in a year where the decisions made by the players and owners in 2011 is finally starting to show on the field and in the television ratings.

Understand that the Super Bowl is still a big deal, but the NFL has a problem in general and it’s called…the NFL.  If the Championship game ratings hold true, they will be down from last season like everything else involving the NFL this season.  Regular season ratings were down about 9% and playoff ratings are off from last season as well.  The Wild card round saw a dip of between 10 and 22 percent.

So, what’s the reason?  Well it could be something as simple as millennials who love their hand-held devices and consume product that way, but it’s more complex than that.  For starters, the NFL has oversold itself and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

When I was growing up, Sunday afternoons were made for professional football.  All games, but one, were played on Sunday at either 1 p.m. or 4 p.m.  The other game was reserved for Monday Night at 9 p.m.  You couldn’t pay good hard earned money to buy the NFL Sunday Ticker with access to all of the games.  Instead you got the games assigned to your local station.  That meant if you grew up in a city like Roanoke, you received the Redskins’ games every week in one of those two time slots.  The late Sunday afternoon window was reserved for a  “big game” say the Redskins and Cowboys for example. Sunday at 4 p.m. meant either Pat Summerall at CBS or Dick Enberg at NBC adding their voices to the big game.  Late in the season after College Football was over, the NFL put two games on Saturday afternoons to fill the football gap.  Two networks aired Sunday afternoon games, CBS and NBC, and the Monday Night game became a staple of American television on ABC.

Now, the NFL has games on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, Sunday Night, and Monday Night during the regular season.  Hey, I get the opening Thursday night game to kick off the season and that makes perfect sense, but Thursday night football in general makes no sense.  The players hate it, the coaches hate it even more and the product is garbage.  Most of the time the players in the Thursday night game are just trying to get it over with and move on.  All teams in the league are required to play at least one Thursday night game and they are doing so after just playing on Sunday.  The NFL forces teams into those stupid “color rush” uniforms which look like either highlighters or dog barf in most instances.  The American viewing public isn’t stupid.  They know the Thursday night product is garbage and they are tuning it out in record numbers.  In 2016, TNF averaged about 12 and a half million viewers.  This year, that number dropped to just below 11 million.

11 million eyeballs is a still a large number which is exactly why – junk or not – Thursday Night Football isn’t going away.  First, the NFL airs all of the games are its own network, albeit simulcast with NBC or CBS.  Thursday Night games were originally created for the NFL Network and as long as the league owns the Network, the NFL is going to make sure that it has live football other than pre-season games and that ultimately worthless January staple, the Senior Bowl.

The Networks love being associated with the NFL.  The Thursday Night contract is up for bid again this season with the winner set to be announced prior to the Super Bowl next week.  NBC and CBS – the current rights holders – are scrambling to retain the rights and trying to fight off FOX and of all things ABC.  Of the four major networks, ABC is the one that has been shutout of NFL Football for the past decade, excluding the simulcast with ESPN of one wildcard game for the past few seasons.

The Network doesn’t have a sports division with all of its productions coming from ESPN.  But, ABC is reportedly making a push to get the TNF contract and it get itself back in the football business despite the fact that in so doing, they are going to piss off loyal fans of its Thursday night lineup.  That’s the tail wagging the dog.  Disney cut a bunch of good people from ESPN in 2017, but is now willing to pony up money for a product that is frankly substandard because history has shown that a Network without the NFL loses more than it gains in saving rights fees.

Second problem the NFL has is London.  Why in the hell Roger Goodell thinks staging three games per year in London is a good idea is beyond me.  It’s not.  Granted the London games draw large crowds, but I’m not sure that’s because of the games themselves or curiosity.  I’ve seen quotes where some who attend the games think it’s boring.  And, this from people who will go watch guys run around in their underwear in a soccer game for two hours where the game ends scoreless.

Goodell is obsessed with London and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that he’s got his eyes on an NFL expansion team in London, and has openly talked of holding a Super Bowl there.  Seriously dude?  Think about what you are talking about.  That franchise in London is going to have 8 road games per year.  That’s eight trips from London to the U.S.  And, if you hold a Super Bowl in London, how are you going to deal with the time difference?  The London games air on American Television at 9:30 a.m. which is 2:30 p.m. London time.  If your plan is to keep the Super Bowl in primetime with a 6:30 p.m. start, that means an 11:30 p.m. start in London.  Also think also about your audience in London.  These are people that go crazy over Royal Weddings and Premier League Soccer.  Football is a uniquely American Sport and the Super Bowl is a uniquely American event which doesn’t need to move overseas.   Leave the tea and crumpets to the soccer crowd.

But, the biggest problem the NFL has the actual product itself.  Listen to any old timer and they’ll tell you a million stories that football is a tough game, played by tough people under tough circumstances.  Former Colts player Art Donovan was a staple of the old David Letterman show.  He once described it as in his day when a guy got hurt he picked himself up and went back to the huddle.  Now, as Donovan says, a player gets hurt and you have four trainers, a doctor and a priest surrounding him.

I’m all for player safety, but when you sign up to play football at the professional level and you are paid well to do it, you accept certain truisms, and one of those is that football is a contact sport….everywhere but the NFL of course.

The league’s new collective bargaining agreement singed in 2011 put severe restrictions on contact between players everywhere but during games.  Teams are permitted to have just one padded contact practice per day during training camp.  There are no more two-a-day contact practices.  If teams hold a second practice, it’s a walkthrough.  Secondly, teams are allowed just 14 padded contact practices during the regular season and 11 of those must occur during the first 11 weeks of the regular season.  Teams are not required to even use those 14 contact practices and some don’t.  The Cincinnati Bengals for example do no contact after training camp.  NFL game week preparation is now limited to meetings and walk-throughs.

It’s all supposedly in the name of player safety.  The problem with that argument is that on Sunday they have to engage in contact.  So, without having actually practiced at all, players are asked to take the field on Sunday and engage in a series of approximately 65 separate car accidents.  That’s contact that they haven’t practiced so rather than making its safer, it’s opened the door to a rash of injuries.

In 2017, alone Green Bay Quarterback Aaron Rogers was lost for most of the season due to a broken collarbone he suffered in a full contact game.  Texans’ rookie quarterback DeShawn Watson was showing everyone his talent until he tore an ACL during game.  Same for Cardinals breakout running back from 2016 David Johnson who dislocated a wrist in Week 1 and didn’t play another down the entire season.  The Minnesota Vikings invested heavily in first round Running Back Dalvin Cook from Florida State.  He ran for 444 yards in the first 4 games then ripped up a knee in a game and was gone for the year.  The Vikings also lost fragile Quarterback Sam Bradford for most of the season.  Colts quarterback Andrew Luck couldn’t recover from a torn labrum and missed all of 2017.  Kansas City’s Spencer Ware torn a knee ligament, Giants Receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.  broke an ankle and even one of the most durable players in the League, Cleveland Offensive Lineman Joe Thomas  who had started every game of what’s destined to be a hall of fame career, tore a triceps muscle landing him on Injured Reserve.

J.J. Watt may win NFL man of the year for his work in raising money to help hurricane ravaged Houston, but he missed most of the season with a  fractured leg.  Among the other NFL stars to miss time were Kansas City’s Eric Berry who ripped an Achilles tendon in week one, Cardinals Quarterback Carson Palmer and Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

In all fairness, some of these injuries did occur in practice, but the point is that you have to practice under game like conditions in order to get used to game like conditions.  And, when you don’t the product suffers.  You’d be hard pressed to find a better football game this season that the Georgia-Oklahoma Rose Bowl.  Guess what, three days prior to the game, Georgia was participating a full contact padded practice to simulate the toughness and physical play they needed for the game.

Interestingly, during his tenure as ESPN’s Monday Night Football analyst, John Gruden was highly critical of the lack of practice time the NFL now allows.  Makes you wonder how he’s going to deal with it in his return to coaching.  His point was always that the lack of practice time, resulted not just in injuries but in not getting valuable repetitions for the backups who are inevitably called upon to replace injured starters.  The NFL has some pretty average starting quarterbacks, but due to a lack of practice time, the NFL has a pretty sub-standard back up quarterbacks.

Clearly the NFL isn’t going under and isn’t going anywhere as a television product.  CBS, FOX, and NBC pay a combined 3.1 billion dollars to televise the league in contracts that run through 2022 and that’s going to go up during the next negotiation because if one network won’t pay it, another one will.  And there are digital companies like Amazon, Facebook and Twitter just itching to televise live sports.

But, you have to wonder in this season of dwindling ratings if the NFL really wanted an Northeastern match-up  between New England and Philadelphia.  Then again, at least it’s between two cities that hold a play in American history and should be a reminder to Roger Goodell that this most American of sports – warts and all – needs to stay away from London.

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