The NFL is without a doubt the most popular professional sports league in America. They are also in the midst of the highlight of the season, the playoffs. So why am I questioning the league and wondering if the NFL has jumped the shark? Because over this season, and the past week, there have been several points which I find interesting and made me question if the future remains bright on the grid iron. As with many things that become popular and rise to the point of social impact there comes a point when that TV show, product, or in this case sport league reaches a point of saturation or tries to re-invent itself, ultimately leading to the term “jumping the shark”. Has this season been the NFL’s peak moment? Where is the league headed?
What initially got me thinking about the NFL reaching its peak was the news coming out last week that several of the opening round games of the NFL playoffs had trouble selling out. This included the legendary Lambeau Field for Green Bay. How could this happen? Some people claim “oh its the economy”. But I think that is the cop out answer. Obviously people may not have as much disposable income as previous years but for a fan base such as the Packers this is a non-issue. These people are born a Packer fan, put on the waiting list for seats. They will cut something else before they cut out Packers playoff seats. Sure the weather may have had a factor but I’m pretty sure the Packer fans have sat in cold games before.
So why the trouble selling out? It is because the NFL is a better home experience. The NFL grew its popularity through becoming the premier sport to watch on television. The genius of the NFL was establishing Sundays where fans could watch the game. However their blessing is now a curse. As televisions become more and more detail oriented and advanced, fans will stay at home more often to watch the game rather than attend. I know some of you say well going to a game is not the same as watching at home. True. My friends and I love tailgating and going to the game. However we are true fans. We are the fans rooting for our team to win every Sunday, dreaming of playoffs every September. But we, the true fans, are not the fans the NFL has embraced. The second point of trouble for the NFL is actually their fan base.
Why in the last decade has the NFL exploded in popularity? Sure the game is exciting. As I noted earlier it is also the perfect sport for television with built in breaks and rapid fire, short bursts of action. But the NFL’s growth is linked to the popularity of fantasy football. Statistics show that almost 30 million people play fantasy football. The NFL’s recent growth has brought in a great amount of new fans. This what the NFL wanted to bring in. The tech fans, the women, the new generation of consumers. But these are fans that are more interested in fantasy play than actually being part of a fan base for a certain team. These people are the ones constantly checking their phones or watching multiple games at once, not the ones sitting on parking lots before the game and shelling out $100 of dollars to attend games.
The third point of worry stems from the NFL’s own doing. This season for the NFL started with a bang, the agreement between the league (and owners) to pay for former NFL players health issues in regards to concussions. The league has clearly placed safety atop the list of priorities. As more medical evidence came out it was clear the league needed to address this issue. However this has opened a sort of Pandora’s box. The league finally admitted (it was obvious) that players have increased chances for concussions and health issues. They addressed this by putting together a historic monetary package for former players. It was something that needed to be done, addressing health concerns for players after they play.
However this has caused several side affects. First and foremost the growth of any sport depends on a feeder system. For years we heard about soccer in the United States being based on increased youth participation and we have finally seen how the talent has worked its way up. For football however they are losing the numbers in their feeder systems such as Pop Warner Football. Once concussions became a prominent topic, health concerns rose for youth participants. According to ESPN reports youth football has seen a 9.5% decrease in participants since 2010. Parents are no longer wanting to put their children at risk. Now this may just be an initial drop because of concerns but the fact remains a 10% drop in two years is reason for concern in terms of growing the sport.
By focusing on health concerns the league itself has also changed the game on the field. I am not coming at this as a former player claiming they have changed the game and the way it should be played. However the game is different. Yes the league wants to focus on keeping players healthy but they are changing how it is played. The league obviously wants to focus on offense and scoring. Why? Because that brings in the non-traditional fans, the aforementioned fantasy football players.
Now concussions are important to address. But why is it just in game factors such as targeting and late hits being addressed. Players wear helmets for a reason. Or do they? It has been widely reported that helmets players use are not up to standard with advancements available. The league should invest more money in developing proper headgear to prevent against concussions. Also why has the league focused only on quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers? Defenders are vulnerable as well, in particular with cut blocks. Also by focusing on addressing the head players will start going lower and hitting at the knees. I know you say well that is not proper technique anyways. First of all, players can no longer practice or perfect tackling techniques because contact has been all but eliminated during practices. Also do you really think a 170 pound corner back is going to be able to hit a 260 pound tight end in the mid-section and bring him down? And as crude as it may sound. Football players play the game knowing the risk of injury. Much in the same way there are other professions that lead to risk (police men, deep sea fishermen, etc.) football players assume the risk in return for the money and glory. It is the trade off. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to play. I myself quit playing football once I realized the toll it would take on my body if I continued.
Now the final point for concern. It is actually the head of the organization. Roger Goodell has done a fabulous job directing the NFL into the new age. Growing it and making it the most popular sport in America. However I also think he may be over-extending his reach. When he took over the league there were numerous negative stories in regards to off-field issues. This allowed him to make a power grab and take control of the NFL. He has done a great job of turning the league image around but in building the NFL brand he has made it all about the NFL. Sure that can be a good thing. No player is bigger than the league. However this seems a bit odd to me. Look at other league’s; in baseball it is about organizations (Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals). In the NBA it is built around players (Kobe and LeBron) but the NFL it is the shield. The NFL. It all starts with draft day. Players are paraded into New York and welcomed to the club. The NFL has built its brand not around the players or teams but around itself. Look at all of their marketing and it ties back into the league. It is a mixed bag that I think can lend the NFL into acting like they are omnipotent. Listen to them talk about how they want to dictate who is in L.A., they want to expand to Europe, they want to extend the schedule and possibly add more teams. This is all about more money, which is the goal for any business. I just think that at times the NFL comes off a little arrogant (asking Baltimore to move baseball game because it was at same time as a season opener) and their vanity may be blinding them.
No matter if you agree or disagree with the points of contention above you must admit that this is pivotal moment for the NFL. With the emphasis on player safety, leading to changes in the game itself; the comforts of home and market saturation, the NFL has some key issues they are in need of addressing. I am not saying the NFL is in any danger of folding or losing its hold as America’s most popular sport. But the NFL may have peaked and needs to be careful in how they advance their product and the league from here on out. Can the NFL look past itself in the mirror and truly take care of the game without abandoning the fans that helped build the league through hours of watching on Sundays?