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The NFL's ratings problems are not just about what happens on the field

Jeff Simon

Mark Cuban said this in 2014 before a game to be played by his NBA team, the Dallas Mavericks:

"I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion. When pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they're getting hoggy. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I'm just telling you, when you got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always turns against you."

NFL ratings have picked up recently but when this season began, a lot of people thought that Cuban's prophecy was coming true. Monday Night Football ratings were down 24 percent, Sunday was down 19 percent and Thursday down 18 percent.

It is generally recognized that, as a consequence, ESPN is still living with a corresponding metric decline. The network has lost 11 million subscribers in six years.

Our new digital universe is kicking the slats out of just about everything. People have gotten used to the miniaturization of every spectacle on their smartphones. When you can carry a Super Bowl around in your pocket -- or a movie as vast as "Lawrence of Arabia" -- you have feelings of omnipotence about access to the world.

Obviously, there is no substitute for what is offered by our culture's real spectacles -- stadium and arena rock concerts and stadium football games. But all that deafening noise and communal intoxication and misbehavior are irreplaceable. No smartphone is that smart yet. What is increasingly arguable are all those midrange venues -- records and TV screens.

Our News sports department colleague Bucky Gleason hit the nail on the head Friday when he pointed at the overstuffing of football on TV for Thanksgiving.

Is there an American man who hasn't been grateful at least once for the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, no matter how little he cared about the team the rest of the year? But offering a whole day of football -- three games -- puts the NFL into territory where you can begin to imagine the snort of big fat hogs stumbling through the stockyards toward the slaughterhouse.

I love watching football. The Bills, especially, of course. I go back to the Bills of Cookie Gilchrist, Billy Shaw, Tom Sestak, Jack Kemp and Elbert Dubenion. I can't imagine a time when I'll completely ignore a Bills game. But my allegiance toward the rest of the NFL is erratic, to put it mildly, and sagging significantly.

It is always a matter of enormous relief to me when the Super Bowl happens, after which I can transfer my strongest sports-watching allegiance to the NBA, to which I returned in the '80s after decades away, so that I could watch the primal excellence of the "showtime" Lakers vs. the Boston Celtics.

My problem couldn't be simpler: I'm a lousy athlete. I went to a school which insisted that, except for football, all of its young men should try to learn all major sports. I've hated very few things in life more than trying to play hockey.

All my life, from my father on, people have tried to get me interested in golf, to no avail.

I enjoyed playing racquet sports. And I liked soccer, too. And I certainly wish, sometimes, that I'd had more of a gift for basketball. The swish of a basketball through a hoop from 30 feet away is one of the most satisfying sounds known to humankind.

The one time in my childhood that I walloped a softball hard enough for a standup double was enough for me to remember that sweet, fat feeling of contact of bat and ball for the rest of my life. It's why I still return to watching baseball now and then, especially this year's World Series when the glorious archetypal battle between two marathon outcast teams -- the Indians and the Cubs -- competed to see which one of them could toss ancient deprivation out the window. (The Cubbies, bless them, ended more than a century of National League baseball mediocrity.)

I've always loved football the way a hopelessly bad athlete does when he's never even close to being big or fast or coordinated enough to play the sport.

Among the many excuses that have been offered to explain this year's rating troubles, there is one I haven't seen mentioned. It isn't just the dearth of star personalities on the highest level on the field -- Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are as it high level as it gets. Nor is it what seems to be increasing intrusiveness and incompetence among the sports zebras. Would someone, for instance, tell me why Odell Beckham Jr., after one of his miraculous one-handed catches accomplished while his body is in the air completely parallel to the ground, should be deprived of the subsequent ability to celebrate for 90 seconds afterward, if he wanted? Man, I sure would.

It's the lack of major horsepower in announcing booths during the game. There are no Howard Cosells, Don Merediths or John Maddens anymore. A really smart league would insist to the networks that they be developed so that lousy games are never so bad that someone in the booth can't make them interesting.

I've always found the jock trash talk on the football preview shows some of the best comedy on television. But where are the Terry Bradshaw color men when game time arrives?

I have had hopes for Shannon Sharpe but he's now in exile playing pundit dodgeball with Skip Bayless on FS-1.

So, as a non-pro happy sports fan, let me offer a suggestion to the hog farm at NFL headquarters: You don't just have work to do cutting down schedules and developing young stars, but you need to force the networks to find distinctive and entertaining people for the booths too.


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