I know what you're thinking: With $15 billion in revenue in 2015 alone, the NFL is the most successful sports business in the world. Its "partners" include huge corporations like Microsoft, Anheuser-Busch, FedEx, Verizon, and McDonald's. In years past, NBC's Sunday Night Football was frequently the highest-rated television show among adults 18 to 49.
Overall, television ratings have dipped significantly, and not due just to the presidential election. Marquee matchups and "special" games (like the recent Thanksgiving Day games) still draw millions of viewers. But even hometown fans would be hard-pressed to watch, say, the 2-9 Bears play the 1-10 49ers.
And while stadium attendance is still strong, TV is a primary (and secondary) driver of a huge percentage of the league's revenue stream.
If the NFL was your business, you'd be worried, and with good reason, because the NFL's problems are largely self-created.
Remember when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was a hit, and ABC decided that if one night a week was good, three nights a week would be awesome? The NFL's Thursday night game was interesting as a limited run; as a nearly season-long fixture, not so much, especially with matchups like Dolphins-Bengals and Jaguars-Titans. Add in Sunday morning London games and now viewers are spoiled for choice.
Too many choices make what was special seem mundane. Years ago I would watch any Premier League matchup -- even Wolverhampton vs. Wigan -- because I could see only one game a week; now that NBCSN makes it possible to see every game, you'd need to pay me to sit through Middlesbrough vs. Hull City.
Like Mark Cuban says, "When you've got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That's rule No. 1 of business."
Concussions and CTE.
I grew up in a time when getting your bell rung was a badge of honor. Between sports and wrecking motorcycles and bicycles and other misadventures, I know I've had a number of concussions: I've seen stars, been knocked out, had headaches and nausea that lasted for days ... and those are just the ones I know about.
Now we know the impact of concussions on brain health. Now we know that CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease caused by a severe blow or repeated blows to the head) can result from impacts that don't even reach the concussion level.
And that's changed the way I watch football. When a player pulls a hamstring, I feel bad for him but can rationalize that he'll recover. Rightly or wrongly, I think of bodily injury as a cost of doing business, so to speak.
But lately, when I see a player get hit in the head and lie motionless on the field, I feel a little sick. And then I feel bad for watching a sport where that can and does happen on a too-frequent basis (because one time is too many).
Don't believe me? Watch this.
It's hard to feel good about a sport where that happens.
It's hard to feel good about yourself for watching a sport where that happens, and where the league has done very little about it.
And because of that ...
A growing number of people don't want their kids to play football.
Some polls indicate that nearly half of Americans wouldn't want their son to play the sport. Will all of them follow through on that sentiment? Possibly not, but it's still a huge number.
Over the past 20 years, fewer and fewer kids play baseball, a trend that impacts current baseball TV ratings. It's hard to be engaged by a sport you didn't play, much less one you don't understand at a relatively deep level. You can still appreciate the game, but it's harder to be passionate about it.
The NBA markets stars; the name on the back of the jersey is often more important than the name on the front. In the NFL, once you get past Tom Brady and a few other mainstream names, you're really rooting for the jersey.
In part that's because the length of the average NFL career continues to decline; as of 2014, the average career was 2.6 years. That signals a huge amount of turnover in itself. Then, factor in a salary cap favoring draft picks and undrafted free agents -- because they're much cheaper -- over veterans, and each team has significant movement every year among average players and stars.
In short, if you're a Redskins fan, many of the players you root for this year will be gone next year.
That's why I rarely watch college basketball anymore. When I grew up it was normal to watch someone like Tim Duncan play all four years at Wake Forest; now one-and-done is the new normal.
Players can't afford to be loyal to teams, but neither can fans.
A decline in fantasy football participation.
Plenty of people still play fantasy football, but legislative action against daily fantasy sports sites like DraftKings and FanDuel -- and the resulting disappearance of all those ads -- has certainly impacted television ratings.
I know not playing fantasy football has changed the way I watch games. Before I stopped playing, I can remember almost obsessively watching the crawl at the bottom of the screen to see how "my" players were doing. I remember watching an otherwise meaningless late-season game because Kurt Warner was my quarterback and I needed big points from him to win that week's matchup and make the playoffs.
Now that I'm not playing, very few games are entertaining enough to hold my interest, since my "pride" is no longer on the line.
That's why 15 NFL teams had signed multiyear sponsorship agreements with FanDuel; they knew fantasy sports -- and gambling -- helps drive viewers and engagement.
Until it doesn't.
As an organization, the NFL is really hard to explain to your friends.
Not the rules, but some of the decisions.
Like how Tom Brady got suspended for four games for maybe, possibly, kinda, sorta having some form of involvement in footballs that were deflated. And how Greg Hardy got suspended for four games for allegedly assaulting, strangling, and threatening his ex-girlfriend. (Hardy was found guilty but the charges were dropped on appeal because the victim did not appear in court to testify.)
Or how Donte' Stallworth was charged with DUI manslaughter after he struck and killed a pedestrian while legally drunk and under the influence of marijuana and was suspended for one season. And how Josh Gordon was suspended for one season (later reduced to 10 games on appeal) after failing a drug test for marijuana.
Go ahead and try to explain how that makes sense. For all its efforts to appear fair and consistent and "protect the shield," the NFL usually manages to do anything but. If you called in sick three times and got docked a week's pay, and someone else threw a tantrum and wrecked a conference room and got docked the same, would you think that was fair? Would your friends think your company is a great place to work?
Again, it's not apples to apples, but it's close.
I'm the NFL's average viewer.
I'm a white male who grew up playing football, attended college and pro football games, and has a son who played high school football. While I'm past the 18-49 demographic, psycho-graphically I fall right in the NFL's wheelhouse.
And they're losing me.
And if they're losing a guy like me, they're likely to lose a lot more fans -- and, more important, a lot more customers.
Since the NFL is first and foremost a business, that should definitely be cause for concern.