This afternoon, President Trump said, “In my opinion, the NFL has to change, or you know what’s going to happen? Their business is going to go to hell.”
If the NFL’s business is going to hell, it’s going to get there very, very slowly. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced earlier this year that the league is on track for $14 billion in revenue this year, up from $8 billion in 2010.
Yes, ratings are down ten percent this year, but it’s hard to directly tie this to kneeling players; this comes with Colin Kaepernick not in uniform for any team, and much less coverage of kneeling players until last week. Even with the reduced ratings this year, Sunday Night Football was the most-watched broadcast program in prime-time last week, and it enjoys that status almost every week. The second-highest program last week? Fox’s Sunday post-game show. The sixth-highest? NBC’s pre-game show. The number one cable program the opening week of football season? The New Orleans-Minnesota game on ESPN. The second-highest? The following game between Denver and San Diego. The third-highest? The Thursday Night Game on NFL Network.
The NFL is suffering a slide in popularity… but the league’s games still remain the most-watched television programs in America, by a wide margin.
No doubt Kaepernick’s stance drove some fans to turn off the television on Sunday afternoons in the past year. But you can find a lot of apolitical reasons for fewer people watching NFL games, too. Quite a few fans gripe that the Thursday Night Games are usually sloppy and poor quality, contending that teams need more than three days preparation to play their best. (Hideous “color rush” uniforms don’t make the game much more fun to watch, either.) It’s possible that if professional football is offered Thursday night, Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern, Sunday at 4 p.m. Eastern, Sunday night, and Monday night, then each individual game seems like less of an event.
Losing teams attract less interest, and right now the NFL has two lousy teams in New York, two lousy teams in Los Angeles, and a lousy team in Chicago.
And the single greatest long-term threat to the NFL is the emerging research into concussions and long-term brain damage. The problem there is less that some fans will stop watching, knowing that players are risking serious health effects later in life, than parents won’t want their kids playing tackle football. The talent pipeline won’t be cut off, just tightened a bit — but that will eventually be visible on the field, when a certain percentage of athletically-talented individuals choose sports with fewer long-term health risks, and equally lucrative.