Tip of the Curve: Has the NFL peaked in popularity?

Roger Goodell

In mathematics, the Gaussian function is a theory of random distribution. It is a model that predicts the grouping of seemingly-random variables when they are viewed en masse.

Visually, the Gaussian is represented by a bell-shaped curve. The apex is in the center, bracketed by two, symmetrical curves – one ascending and the other descending. Remember that shape; it will be revisited later.

This week, the NFL’s TV ratings continued their season-long funk, hitting a new low with ESPN’s “Monday Night Football”, which received a paltry, 5.2 rating.

A shade fewer than eight and a half million viewers tuned in to watch the Arizona Cardinals take on the New York Jets. Last season’s week 6 MNF game received an 8.7 rating and a 13.9 million audience, meaning this year’s program experienced a 40% viewership decline.

ESPN wasn’t alone. The numbers for NBC’s Sunday Night Football were down 38 and 40 percent (rating/audience) from last year. Thursday’s game, broadcast on CBS and NFL Network, also recorded a decline.

It wasn’t just a one-week aberration, either. Nielsen reports the NFL’s overall TV numbers are down 11% from last year. If the season ended today, the league would record their lowest averages in five seasons.

If you listen closely, you can almost hear the sharp crash of glass breaking, as network execs leap from their proverbial, skyscraper windows.

Theories abound as to the reason for the decline. At times like these, the media seems determined to delve into the sociological factors at play.

Popular examples of such theories include National Anthem protest-backlash, concussion nausea, Deflategate, and the NFL’s image as a collection of substance-abusing, woman-beating criminals.

These are all important issues, and certainly figure-prominently into the fabric of cultural context. However, society has shown it will overlook the warts if they enjoy the product, no matter how unsavory those blemishes.

Sometimes, in our search for the truth, we tend to overlook the obvious: The NFL has simply already peaked in the eye of America’s interest.

The Good, The Bad & The Unwatchable

The NFL, of course, would never entertain such a possibility. Driven by its eternal hubris, league commissioner Roger Goodell has cited the election cycle and online streaming as the primary factors driving the ratings lull.

“Network television is still dominant,” he said, in a press conference at the NFL’s Wednesday meetings.

Goodell works directly for the owners of the 32 franchises. He is their mouthpiece. From a financial standpoint, they have little to worry about anytime soon.

In the past decade, the NFL has experienced unparalleled, financial growth. In 2005, the league generated an estimated $6.16 billion in revenue. Last year, that figure ballooned to a mind-numbing $13 billion.

To put that cash windfall into context, the revenue of the English, Spanish, German, French and Italian soccer leagues is about $13.8 billion combined.

Faced with those lofty sums, it makes sense that the owners aren’t concerned. But, as businessmen, their idea of success is measured in the color green. For those less concerned with the bottom-line, there are troubling signs on the horizon.

Like any business, the NFL butters their bread with the 30-50 demographic – the age-bracket with the most disposable income. Simultaneously, they must appeal to the 18-30 age ranges, as they represent their next wave of clients.

The “Millennials”, as they are known, have proven a fickle market. With an abundance of available stimuli, trends arrive and depart faster than a Jadeveon Clowney sack.

They are less-willing than ever to pay for content, as the costs of living continue to rise. Their consumer habits are changing, as a result.

The average price of cable TV has reached $103 per household, according to Fortune. The average amount of time 18-25-year-olds spent consuming live TV dropped another two percent, this year.

Until this season, the NFL has bucked that trend, plating lofty-ratings despite this changing landscape. But, no one is invincible.

Despite killing the Sunday and Monday night markets, the NFL was not content with two nights. In 2006, they were awarded the rights to play on Thursday, and began by scheduling a limited slate of matches. By 2012, there was a Thursday night game every week, with every tea, guaranteed at least one slot.

This has lead to a diluted slate of horrible games – nationally-televised match-ups of small market or lackluster teams. The shorter turn-around between games has lead to a decline in quality of play, as well as an increase in injuries.

Who can forget last week’s, Thursday night, division showdown between the Drew Stanton-lead Cardinals and the Blaine Gabbert-lead 49ers? I’m sure if they haven’t forgotten, they want to.

The NFL arrogantly assumed that viewers would continue to blindly- tune in. The public is proving them wrong. While the overall numbers look relatively-strong, the long term ramifications include a diluted brand and an over-reaching apathy.

Corporate greed consumes the NFL in other areas. They re-negotiated their TV-deal with Direct TV, and jacked-up their price by 50% (the NFL now receives $1.5 billion, annually, from Direct TV).

Fans have been stuck with the bill. Direct TV’s Sunday Ticket Max now costs $359.94, per year, on top of whatever folks are already paying. The average cost of attending a game for a family of four (tickets plus food and parking) is $321 dollars, making football America’s priciest ticket of its major sports.

Faced with such financial mountains, fans have been eschewing traditional consuming methods for new ones.

The Proliferation of Fantasy

The explosion of fantasy sports in recent years has helped prop up fans’ interest in the NFL. The multi-billion dollar industry may also be one of the main reasons for their TV decline.

Fantasy football requires its players to keep an eye on everything happening simultaneously. They can’t merely watch “just one game”, if they want to keep appraised of their entire team.

This has lead to a “Red Zone” mentality, where the games themselves are less interesting to the masses than highlights of big-scoring plays. Venture into a bar, on any given Sunday. The games are on, but the patrons are more apt to be buried in their phones, keeping tabs on their match-ups.

Gambling and pro sports will always walk hand-in-hand. The advent of various apps and websites ensures betting enthusiasts can follow the scores without having to watch the actual games.

The Impact

TV contracts account for a $6.4 billion slice (roughly 49%) of the NFL’s revenue pie. Goodell estimates that the league’s total profits will reach $25 billion before this decade is over.

That projection assumes revenue will continue to grow at the same pace. The NFL will undoubtedly seek more money whenever their deals are renewed. However, if viewership continues to decline, it will be interesting to see how the networks respond.

Six weeks of relatively-weak numbers won’t be a cause for panic. After all, the high watermark they are chasing is their own. At some point, however, the NFL’s brass may have to come to terms that the league might have already reached its pinnacle.

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