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Inside the NFL: Why TV ratings are dropping

Something’s wrong with the NFL.

Television ratings are down across the board. There are growing complaints about the poor quality of play. There have been games, such as last Monday night’s between the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets, made even less watchable by a flurry of penalties. There is more talk about the league’s mishandling of punishment for players’ bad behavior.

The issue of fans tuning out was on the collective mind of NFL owners and league executives when they gathered last Wednesday in Houston for their annual fall meeting. There was discussion about other topics that also wouldn’t necessarily fall into the upbeat category, such as the Oakland Raiders’ likely move to Las Vegas. The league also finds itself with another embarrassment involving a domestic-violence case after new evidence it somehow failed to gather surfaced to support accusations against New York Giants kicker Josh Brown.

However, the vulnerability of what once was seen as an indestructible brand has clearly captured the attention of everyone with a stake in it.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said plenty when he told reporters he didn’t think there was “a single reason” for the decline in TV ratings. That should be alarming, because the go-to excuse for the past several weeks was that it’s an election year and NFL viewership traditionally dips during this cycle.

The fact the league is finding out its game is being adversely impacted by a number of other forces figures to make the fix – if there is one -- that much more difficult. The situation has the feel of trying to plug multiple holes that have suddenly sprung in a dam.

“There are a lot of factors to be considered,” Goodell said. “We don’t make excuses. We look at it and we try to figure out what’s changing.”

One explanation the commissioner offered that sounded very much like an excuse was that viewers haven’t been lost; they’re just not sticking with games as long as they did last year, when ratings reached all-time highs. He said more people are changing the channel on prime-time games that have been less competitive than a year ago.

Perhaps. But lopsided games happen and if you are a fan of both teams, and especially the one leading, it would stand to reason that you’d want to enjoy every moment of the beat-down. The notion that fans only want to watch games that are close and competitive would have to be viewed as a serious problem because, one, not all games will fit that description and, two, the NFL’s popularity wasn’t built on the assurance that every game would come down to the final seconds.

Indeed, something has changed and that is an audience seeking something other than what the league has to offer on a week-to-week basis. To a large degree, fans simply don’t like the product as much as before.
Consider the results from a recent poll conducted by on why fans think TV ratings have declined. Of the more than 13,000 votes cast, here is how it broke down:

Bad games in prime time: 25.38 percent
The anthem protests: 23.88 percent.
Too many penalties/bad officiating: 16.52 percent.
Over saturation of the airwaves with games: 15.85 percent.
The shift away from TV generally: 11.94 percent.
The election/debates: 4.18 percent.
The absence of star players: 2.25 percent.

The only result I found surprising was the last. I thought the fact there are fewer big-name quarterbacks playing (after Peyton Manning’s retirement and with Tom Brady suspended for the first four games) and some that aren’t playing particularly well would have been a larger factor.

But there seems little doubt that what is mostly being seen on the field just isn’t very good. The NFL is supposed to be the best-played and best-coached football of all. Too often the games that have been played in September and October have resembled the ones played in August. That’s particularly true with Thursday night contests that most players – with almost no real practice or meeting time -- don’t appear fully prepared, physically or mentally, to play and as a result become more prone to injury.

Not coincidentally, coaches and club executives believe the primary cause for the erosion of the product is the reduced practice time the players sought and received in their last collective bargaining agreement with the NFL in 2011. Goodell expects the topic to be revisited during negotiations for the next CBA.
“People don’t want to hear coaches say that, but how can you not be in tune to the fact you have a younger football league than pre-2011 and now you’re spending five less weeks with the players?” Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy told Mike Garafolo of NFL Media. “I mean, that’s not the best formula. I think it’s been proven since then.”

There is something else to consider. Is the NFL turning off younger fans, who already have far different viewing habits than ones that long ago helped establish the game’s made-for-TV popularity, by insisting on minimizing player celebrations?

If so, the league apparently doesn’t care. Goodell said there will be no backing off of a continued effort to keep what players do after a play within acceptable boundaries to maintain “the professional standards that we want to uphold.”
Through the six weeks of games before Thursday night, there were 16 penalties called for excessive celebrations, an increase of six from last year. Penalties for taunting have nearly doubled, from 11 to 21.

“It’s probably a combination of making” taunting “a point of emphasis,” the commissioner said. “But we look at that as sportsmanship. And that can lead to, in most cases when somebody taunts somebody else, somebody reacts and that can escalate quickly.”

So can a decreasing television audience.

Beneath the Surface

I’m writing this column on a Microsoft Surface tablet, which I happen to love for all of my day-to-day work. I mention that because New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick made headlines for saying how much he hates using the same device on the sidelines during games and will, in fact, stop using it.
As part of the NFL’s $400-million sponsorship agreement with Microsoft, coaches use the tablets to review photos of plays during the game rather than relying on paper images. “They’re just too undependable for me,” Belichick told reporters. “I’m going to stick with pictures, which several of our other coaches do, as well, because there just isn’t enough consistency in the performance of the tablets. I just can’t take it anymore.”

There is widespread speculation that Belichick’s rant will cause the NFL to move as quickly as possible to make in-game video available on the tablets. Belichick, who smashed his Surface during the Patriots’ Oct. 2 loss against the Buffalo Bills, would likely be happy with that change.

But at least one player, Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, told reporters he didn’t like the video idea because it would be useful only for the offense, given that the defense has to “react to everything.”

Don’t be surprised if …

… The Pittsburgh Steelers significantly alter their offensive approach with Ben Roethlisberger sidelined with a knee injury. As running back Le’Veon Bell pointed out to reporters, Landry Jones can’t be expected to simply pick up where Roethlisberger left off as a quick-strike passer. Almost no other quarterback has his talent or intangibles, and Jones also has limited experience. “We understand when Ben goes down,” Landry is “the backup quarterback and you don’t want to put too much on him,” Bell said. “Obviously, we can’t scale it back too much because we know he understands the whole offense. As a team, we have to help him. We’ve got to get him comfortable and confident, and he should be good.”

… The Baltimore Ravens’ losing streak extends to four games, something that has not happened in the eight-plus seasons John Harbaugh has been their coach. Granted, Sunday’s opponent is the New York Jets, who are bad, but the Ravens are plagued by injuries to some key veterans, including guard Marshal Yanda and outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. They also have had problems with discipline, tying the Raiders for the league lead in penalties with 52.

… The Tennessee Titans keep piling up sacks. They have 12 in their last two games and Sunday’s opponent is the Indianapolis Colts, whose quarterback, Andrew Luck, has already been sacked 23 times. That’s an average of nearly four sacks per game.


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