Let’s get this out of the way. For Roger Goodell to say that the NFL isn’t losing viewers is almost preposterous. Ratings are down across the board. If the league wants to bury its head in the sand or hold its hands over its ears and hum pretending that ratings drops aren’t an issue that is their prerogative. It may not be smart, but it’s their choice. Focusing on the results doesn’t fix the problem. There are a ton of reasons — which we will get to — that have been used to help explain the ratings decrease, but the root of the problem may actually be self inflicted. The current CBA creates a worse product on the field that fans are getting sick of.
First let’s get to the current excuses. There’s the presidential debates, which makes sense. The first debate had ratings numbers similar to Super Bowls. But there wasn’t a ratings decrease during the past three presidential elections — one without an incumbent president. Between debate one and debate two there was a huge discrepancy in viewership numbers and it isn’t as if the NFL’s ratings increased or recovered viewers they may have lost to debate one. Ratings continued to decline. Sure some prime time games went head to head with debates, but what about all the other games? It’s a convenient excuse. So are national anthem protests, over-saturation in TV scheduling, and anything else to do with the league office and its suspensions over the past few years.
The most logical reason — Occam’s razor again — for the decline in ratings is simply the product on the field. It’s been bad. Some would say it completely stinks. Name a game this season — off the top of your head — that has been wildly exciting. It’s not easy. Kevin Clark may have led the charge that the NFL is not a strong on the field product as it has been early in the season If you haven’t read his piece on age and the quality of play, take some time to read it now.
So let’s get to the root of the problem and not treat the symptoms. The NFL is trending younger, because the CBA made it the most efficient cost effective way to build a team. Because of that players are less experienced. The increase in undrafted free agents leads to a lower quality of play. They are cheaper. It’s better for salary cap economics and the bottom line. Factor that in with the limits on practice time and limits on contact, and the fundamentals of the game are at all an time low. Offensive lines struggle to protect quarterbacks. Penalties come more often because players aren’t in the right place or have to commit a foul to not get beat. The product on the field deteriorates. Since there are more nationally televised games, people see the bad product on the field more and more. They become disenfranchised and ratings drop. It is not difficult.
The problem is there is no easy cure for the CBA issues. It runs for another five years. There are no opt-outs like the NBA where things can be changed. We are all stuck with the system until the agreement runs its course. Combine the decrease in quality of play with cord cutters, millennial viewing habits and overall market trends and that’s a problem for the NFL and its TV partners. It’s going to take some creative thinking and new ideas to fix what ails the NFL. Pretending that everything is going to be fine won’t work, and it sounds like that’s the current NFL strategy.