NFL viewership declines as a result of Goodell’s mishaps

Five weeks have passed in the 2016 NFL season, and some are suggesting that the fall of professional football is imminent. Concerns first rose when the season opening game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers drew in 8 percent fewer viewers than last year’s showdown between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers and 6 percent fewer viewers than 2014’s opener between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. Viewership figures did not improve. Throughout the first four weeks of the season, overall viewership was down 11 percent, and viewership among 18–49 year old people declined by 12 percent.

The NFL itself is apparently unconcerned by these numbers. “While our partners, like us, would have liked to see higher ratings, they remain confident in the NFL and unconcerned about a long-term issue,” NFL senior executives Brian Rolapp and Howard Katz said in a memo to team owners. They noted that over the last 15 years, ratings viewership has grown 27 percent and that football “continues to be far and away the most powerful programming on television and the best place for brands and advertisers.”

Rolapp and Katz attributed the decline in viewership to the “unprecedented interest in the Presidential election.” They pointed to a decline during the 2000 election between Republican nominee George W. Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore as precedence for an election that drew away viewers from the NFL. Indeed, it does appear that this year’s contest between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump has garnered substantial attention among American TV viewers. Though Trump has protested the time of the first presidential debate for coinciding with a Monday Night Football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints, the first presidential debate drew in 84 million viewers, surpassing the previous 80.6 million viewer record from the 1980 debate between Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter.

Evidently, the intensity of the current presidential election does explain some of the NFL’s viewership woes, but other trends seem to have some speculating whether or not this decline in viewership will be reversed. Some have cited the NFL’s uneven allowance of expression as a reason why some fans have stopped watching football games. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stands out among players protesting the National Anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The league itself seems to believe this is a good thing, claiming “that the perception of the NFL and its players is actually up in 2016.”

This may be true among the public at large; however, critics have been angered at the apparent approval of this show of support for a political movement while the league forbade the Dallas Cowboys from wearing a decal in support of the Dallas police department.

The league gave a good reason for this decision. "There are so many wonderful, wonderful causes, the league has to be careful," NFL executive vice president Stephen Jones said when he had been asked about the possibility of the Cowboys wearing the decal in games. "If you allow one, then what do you do about every team that has a great reason to have something on their helmets?” Nevertheless, there is a considerable number of people who view the NFL as taking sides in a political matter, and these people may be protesting by denying the NFL the viewership it needs to keep advertisers happy.

The two points of potential controversy I wrote about in an article from Jan. 24 remain sticking points for the NFL. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Deflategate scandal stemming from the 2014 AFC Championship Game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Patriots has led many to question the fairness of the league’s disciplinary actions and appeal system. Though the NFL Game Operations Manual stipulated that altering the inflation of a football outside of regulations would incur a $25,000 fine, Goodell chose to make an example of the Patriots by suspending quarterback Tom Brady for four games, stripping the team of two draft picks, and fining the team $1 million. Though Goodell finally won at the U.S. Court of Appeals and Brady decided to serve his suspension, the damage has already been done to the credibility of the commissioner. In making a mountain out of a molehill and rejecting many scientists’ views regarding the matter, Goodell has turned off many who feel like drama off the field may make as much of an impact as the players on the field.

Further adding to the league’s viewership dilemma is the impact that player safety has had on rule changes and public perception. During the offseason, the NFL adjusted the starting point for drives after a touchback on a kickoff or punt from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line. In an effort to minimize the possibility of injury during kickoffs and punts, the NFL has potentially only drawn the ire of fans who believe NFL leadership is changing the nature of the game away from being a contact sport. For those fans who want to see action, alternatives like hockey become more appealing, drawing viewership away from football. Furthermore, such a move really doesn’t do much to address the reality of player safety concerns; it may in fact give the aura to those concerned by the violence that the league is only paying lip service to this critical issue, negatively impacting the reputation of the league.

It’s still too early to tell whether this dip in viewership is a temporary result of the election cycle or a fundamental shift in viewership taste. As many statisticians would surmise, the small sample size of four weeks of football is not enough to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding the state of the game. It is worth monitoring to see whether or not football’s status as the top sport in the United States will change.