For years now, the MLB and NFL have been polar opposites. The MLB has been steadily declining in popularity since the 80's while the NFL has been on the rise. While one league is still dealing with a scandal (steroids) that has ultimately proven relatively meaningless to most fans, the other seemed to run through much more serious scandals (domestic abuse, concussions) like Walter Payton through a bad defensive line. Baseball has long been accused of living in the past, while football has been praised as generally being forward-thinking. Baseball looked like a slowly dying sport while the NFL could talk about growing their revenues by a billion dollars annually and be taken seriously.
Suddenly, and seemingly overnight (though of course that is not the case), the narrative has shifted. TV ratings for the NFL are in free fall this year; the league is already going to have to provide double the free ad space to advertising partners that they have ever given out before because they have not been hitting their viewership goals. Suddenly a league that seemed invincible once now seems to do nothing but lurch from one scandal to the next. Youth participation is down significantly across the nation. Meanwhile, baseball has seen record ratings for the playoffs this year, a data spike that serves to underscore the fact that their viewership has quietly been increasing the last few years. The steroid scandal that never seemed to go away now is mostly limited to rearing its ugly head every time the league votes on Hall of Fame inductees. And while youth participation in baseball is down slightly, studies show that baseball is actually losing fewer kids than any other major sport and certainly isn't hemorrhaging its future players like football is.
What could explain such an abrupt reversal for the NFL?
There is one major issue that would appear to explain the change: growing awareness of concussions in football. Most people now accept that not only is football dangerous, it is inherently so. Football as a sport cannot be played properly without players becoming concussed. That would explain why youth participation in football is plummeting across the country: more and more parents are discouraging their kids from playing the sport, and that number will likely continue to drop as more people learn about the severe repercussions concussions can have for children specifically. There was a hope that better tackling form, better helmet technology, better concussion protocol from coaches and doctors, and penalties for big hits would make the sport safer. But increasingly people are learning something the NFL has known for a while: unless we develop a helmet that can go inside your skull, there is no way to make football safe. Of course, studies show that all sports, baseball included, run a greater risk of concussions and CTE than previously believed. But most sports do not require players to give each other concussions on literally every play. Football is unique in that there are positions (the offensive and defensive lines) for which that is the case. The trend has been that more and more people are accepting that reality, and as fewer people play football themselves, the game will begin to suffer.
Concussions fail to explain the precipitous drop in viewership however. In the seasons following widespread revelations about concussions, the NFL's growth in viewership continued to increase and showed no signs of even slowing down. Furthermore, viewership of college football games has stayed mostly steady, with only occasional slight dips in their TV ratings over previous years. So there must be other factors working against the NFL in particular rather than football in general.
There seem to be four prevailing explanations for the plummeting ratings outside of the controversy surrounding concussions. The first and least convincing to me is the theory that Colin Kaepernick and other players protesting during the national anthem is causing people to turn off their TVs. While there are certainly people who are boycotting the NFL based on these protests, it seems highly dubious to me that the boycott accounts for even a significant portion of the drop-off in TV ratings. We are looking at dips of 13%-25% in viewership. A boycott based on the national anthem protests simply doesn't account for 1 out of every 4 people who watched Monday Night Football a year ago not tuning in now.
The second and also unconvincing theory is that the insane roller coaster of doom and regret that we're calling the 2016 election has made this year an anomaly for television. This holds a bit more water than the Kaepernick theory. Statistics show a gain in ratings for cable news shows against the NFL on game days. But the gains in news aren't proportional to the losses the NFL is suffering, and baseball is actually seeing gains in their TV ratings over last year during the same election cycle.
The third theory is much more credible; it alleges that the professional football product has actually suffered appreciably in comparison to previous years. A lot of this is subjective, and some football analysts (who are not exactly unbiased) disagree, but it does seem to hold water. The league's current minimum salary scale makes veterans cost-prohibitive to teams, which means teams are fielding less and less experienced teams in efforts to save money. A 16-game season and short weeks (when teams have to play 2 games in 5 days for Thursday Night Football) mean that teams are more tired, injured, and mistake-prone. Perhaps most damning, however, is the length of games. In years past, the length of baseball games was a running joke and an oft-cited reason for its dip in popularity. But for several years now, the average football game has actually taken longer than the average baseball game, clocking in at around three hours and ten minutes. That is a lot of extra time for a sport in which the actual action of the game takes less than 15 minutes.
I think that the diminished product has its origins in the fourth theory, and the one which I think is the actual cause of the NFL's problem: that the NFL has simply gotten too big for its proverbial britches. For the last decade and a half at least, the NFL has been obsessed with making money. They are a business of course, and making money is what businesses are all about. But the NFL's obsession with monetizing every single aspect of consuming their product might finally be bringing them down as predicted by Mark Cuban not long ago. This obsession has led them to make arcane decisions like forbidding their own teams from posting highlights of games to social media, a policy that the MLB tried in the early stages of social media and found to be counterproductive. It led to their cover-up of scientific studies on the causes and effects of concussions. The NFL's nonsensical application of penalties and punishments combined with their ludicrous collective bargaining agreement almost landed the league in a Supreme Court case this year against one of its own players. The fact that we will almost certainly see the NFL season expanded to 18 games soon and football on even more nights of the week show that the NFL is only concerned with increasing profits year after year and not at all concerned with player health and safety, nor the quality of the product they are producing. More games on more nights also means that the NFL is over-saturating the week with football. It's easy to justify watching a few hours a couple days of the week, but when every game takes over three hours to watch, watching it all the time becomes a chore. All of this adds up to a league that is and has been making decisions in the interest of business which are, ironically, bad for business because it reduces the quality of the product the NFL is selling and makes the product harder to consume.
All of this having been said, the conclusion here should not be that professional football is dying - far from it. Considering the fact that the league is still drawing the numbers that it is even after the domestic abuse scandals, the concussion scandals, the deflated balls fiasco, interminably long and boring games, loss of talent to health and contract concerns, and highly publicized protests against the national anthem, we can conclude that football is a drug and a lot of people will need their fix regardless of how good the product is or how expensive it becomes to watch it. But that does not mean that acting like a drug dealer makes the most business sense in the long term; sure cutting your product with baking soda and making unreasonable and arbitrary demands on your dealers and runners gets you more money now, but that's not the way to stay on top. Unfortunately for the NFL, it seems to be taking the wrong lessons from its plummeting ratings and appears to be doubling down on policies aiming at monetizing anything and everything possible (hence the aforementioned draconian social media policies, celebration restrictions, and talk of adding more games). The NFL is not dying, but even from a strictly business perspective, it is not altogether healthy either.