The future of football, revisited

On one hand:

Ratings for regular-season games fell 17 percent over the past two years, according to Nielsen, and after one week of play in the new season, viewership has been flat. February marked the third-straight year of audience decline for the Super Bowl and the smallest audience since 2009. Youth participation in tackle football, meanwhile, has declined by nearly 22 percent since 2012 in the face of an emerging scientific consensus that the game destroys the brains of its players.

On the other hand, how many other focal experiences are left:

Yet even a middling franchise, the Carolina Panthers, sold in May for a league record  $2.3 billion. Advertisers spent a record $4.6 billion for spots during NFL games last season, as well as an all-time high $5.24 million per 30 seconds of Super Bowl time. The reason is clear: In 2017, 37 of the top 50 broadcasts on U.S. television were NFL games, including four of the top five.

The Green Bay Packers, the only NFL team that shares financial statements with the public, has posted revenue increases for 15 straight seasons. Leaguewide revenue has grown more than 47 percent since 2012. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s official target is $25 billion in revenue by 2027, or roughly 6 percent annual growth.

“The business of the NFL is very strong and continues to get stronger,” says Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd., and an unofficial surrogate for league owners.

But what will happen if the number of brain damage cases continues to rise?  Here is more from Ira Boudway and Eben Novy-Williams at Bloomberg.

For the pointer I thank Ray Lopez.


I suspect cord cutting is a major factor in the ratings. I moved a few years ago and dropped cable. It's problematic to follow a team without cable. This is significant for the younger generation of potential fans who cut the cord at a higher rate and grow up without football. I'm reminded some of how boxing used to be much more popular and then they went pay-per-view and popularity dropped along with access.

It's very, very easy to follow football without cable. Sign up for Playstation Vue or many other similar services. You get Fox and CBS and ESPN and everything else.

Overall, when addressing the decline of the NFL, I think it's very important that we do NOT blame the fact that they have gone full-blown-social-justice-warrior on the USA. That would be uncouth. I mean, how could anyone dislike anyone who dislikes Trump? It's impossible.

Instead, let's pretend that everyone is suddenly concerned with brain injuries. That allows everyone, even lefties, to feel good about themselves and their worldview.

@TPM: cord-cutting as cause of ratings fall may be a laughable idea...........until you see the music industry revenues history. They peaked around 1998-1999 and never recovered in spite of streaming revenue.

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Its important to play too.

I would agree that cord cutting is a major reason that ratings have dropped... however I would not be surprised if that 17% drop would be made up by non-measurable illegal streaming.

For example, my "friend" switched to Playstation Vue, but local channels are not available in the area, so "he" goes to Reddit to find free live streams of every game, which surely is not seen in the ratings.

Right. Millions of people have stopped watching the NFL, but they are secretly streaming it on Reddit. Sure. That is just so plausible!

Right. Millions of people have stopped reading the newspapers, but are secretly getting it off a website called Facebook. That is just too plausible!

First... you're right, it probably doesn't account for all 17%. However, I still would bet that illegal streaming accounts for a good chunk. The demand is currently high enough that multiple excellent (as in rarely lose connection) free HD streaming sites are available for every single game, and they are easy to find.

Second... you don't stream something on Reddit, you link to a streaming site. That link is available from many more venues than Reddit. A small distinction, but it shows your incredulity is due to lack of knowledge rather than actual knowledge.

Third... I'm guessing you're old. Go talk to anybody mildly tech savvy, or anybody who is in the late teens or 20s and ask them how much of their media content they've obtained illegally. "Millions" will be a word with much less significance to you then.

The variety of human experience is *truly* notable. The fact that there are people with computers and internet access surprised by the idea that huge swaths of cord cutters are obtaining their media through file-sharing is... laughable. In 2018, paying for media feels like a suggestion more than an expectation to most young people.

Aren’t local channels free over the air? Or is he streaming when there is a media blackout due to a failure to sell out the game?

They are free over the air, but you'll still need an antenna... which nobody has these days. Much easier to do a quick google search.

"For example, my "friend" switched to Playstation Vue, but local channels are not available in the area, so "he" goes to Reddit to find free live streams of every game, which surely is not seen in the ratings."

As a household that's involved with a prominent rating service, they specifically monitor every TV that has a computer or video game connected to it. So playing it on Playstation Vue would indeed show up in the ratings.

Right, on Vue it would show up. I'm saying a lot of people stream games outside of Vue straight from a browser.

Football players might end up with brain damage but they're still smarter than Trump. Hell, I'm smarter than that guy.

Nassim Taleb (look him up) states as fact that Trump is smarter than him.

Nassim Taleb is a snake oil salesman, who can't grasp basic concepts from the fields he claims to be an "expert" in (statistics and mathematics), a thorough analysis of the things he is promulgating whenever he gets a public forum would lead any capable and intelligent person to realize he is spewing nonsense.

So it may be entirely possible that Trump is smarter than Taleb and still not very smart.

Trump is obviously smarter than everyone who post on this site. His economic policies have been a terrific boon to the US economy, the numbers are indisputable.

If you agreed with his economic policies, Trump is smarter than you because he was able to get into the position to enact the policies.

If you did not agree with them, then he is way smarter than you (*cough* Krugman *cough*)

What's worse, male assault on women or male assault on each other. It's what males do. As for male assault on women, well, I'm not gonna accuse Kavanaugh of being worse that the average man; he is who who he is. What he is accused of doing is just what privileged men have been accursed of doing for a very long time. Personally, I wouldn't oppose Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, But I would require him to stand naked in the Senate and swear he did not do what this woman says he did.

Does she have to stand naked too?

Macular degeneration is totally problematic. "...owing to all the supplies he carried in his backpack, including, importantly, a Thermos half-full of martini! which he had shaken briefly with ice cubes....his bartending aided immeasurably by the Maglite in his mouth...yet another weekend." Joshua Ferris

Without gambling pro football revenues fall rapidly. Gambling drives intensity of viewership. If internet gambling grows franchise value grows.

Long term who knows. I don’t watch nor do I have much interest.

High school football is still popular but isn’t as dominant as it was due in part to demographic changes in country. Some suburban moms have turned against it but in this case teenage girls have more impact on male desire to participate

@DanC - the article discusses how now legalized (as per a recent US Sup Ct decision) sports betting may save the NFL. As for the Reddit linked illegal streaming mentioned above, I doubt many people are comfortable with some dude's shaky handheld camera live video feed (which I think is what is being referred to).

No, Reddit streams are the same as the TV feeds.

Intrepid Internet users can find live streams of virtually every sporting event. One will have to install streaming software and be careful about which links are safe. I've watched European soccer for the last decade this way. However, viewership this way is not recorded in traditional ratings.

I quit watching and betting on football about six years ago because of the violence and emerging information on brain injuries.

football is heavily subsidized by government; let them pay the full cost of stadium construction, operations, normal taxes and maintenance -- and those wonderful profit margins vanish.

the primary college football feed system to the professional teams is government subsidized ... and by the unpaid "amateur" college players

Hugh correct about the subsidies but I do not see that changing. My guess is St Louis would gladly spend 1.5 Billion for a stadium to obtain their 3 NFL team. The real profitability problem will develop in 2020 when it will be time for a new broadcast agreement with the networks. I expect revenue will fall and then the question is will they have developed alternate income streams, Gaming is one.

From the link:

“If we lose football, we lose a lot in America. I don’t know if America can survive,” David Baker, president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said in January. A few months later, North Carolina’s head football coach Larry Fedora echoed his sentiments: “I fear that the game will be pushed so far from what we know that we won’t recognize it 10 years from now. And if it does, our country will go down, too.”

These people are crazy.

It's a game, fellas. A popular one, sure, but that's all it is. If it disappears fans will watch something else. Neither the world nor the country will collapse.

>A popular one, sure

Well, no. It was unpopular from 1776 til about 1976, and the country did just fine. It has since enjoyed 40 years of popularity which is now plummeting.

Professional bowlers used to be millionaires, too, fellas. The NFL too shall pass.

Get woke, go broke, as they say.

I don't quite agree with your timeline, but this is otherwise correct.

The Friday Night Fights used to be popular too.

Paying $2.3 billion for a "middling franchise" looks crazy to me, but then, I'm not a hedge fund billionaire, so I could be wrong.

We lost professional boxing that in its heyday was about as big as football without any real negative impact.

Saturday night boxing was a mainstay of TV in the 1950s.

Blood sports like cock fighting, dog fighting, bear baiting, etc. were once quite popular as well. Now they're actually illegal. Times change. Perhaps in the future there'll be clandestine football games in remote pastures, attended by obsessive gamblers and their molls. But I doubt it.

I agree with most of you in here. Additionally, the real problem is not the culture wars, but the large amounts of head injury that results from football. This will terminate the NLF because it is already terminating many programs starting with the higher grade levels of grade school. If K-12 increasingly eliminates football, then the "feeder" for the colleges and NLF dies. Football dies from the bottom up.

I suspect Kapernik and the culture wars are being allowed to hog all of the publics' attention because it is a smoke screen that obscures the real issue threatening football - head injury.

Really, you really think that colleges will cancel their football programs. Maybe some will, but not the big programs in the prominent conferences. I just googled college football viewer numbers and found they are on a similar decline, but what administrator will axe a profit-making football program? In many US states, the highest paid state employee is a state college football coach.

Very very few football programs are profit-making

"Very very few football programs are profit-making"

That's silly. Most College football programs at the 1-A level are profitable. That's 120 teams.

Citation needed. I doubt more than half of football programs are profitable. The top tier ones are wildly profitable, the middle ones are probably close to breakeven, and the filler schools in division 1-A (think Temple, Western Kentucky, Rice, UMass, etc.) probably lose money.

My alma matter (Group of 6, American Athletic Conference) loses money, and a fair amount of it. I suspect that outside the top 60-ish schools, the schools prop up football from the general fund, or at least from alumni that would donate to other school-related funds/activities (I think there are 62 Big Five Conference schools).

No judgement here, I love college football. But I don't think most schools are making money. Just a select few.

Another problem: rule changes have made it such that having an elite quarterback gives teams much more of a boost than it used to. Ironically, Kaepernick wasn't one of these, which is why the 49ers fell off once opposing defenses figured out his particular skill set. If you don't have one of the top 6, 7, or 8 quarterbacks in the league, there is practically no hope for your team beyond one-and-done in the playoffs. And because teams keep these quarterbacks year after year, it's for the most part the same teams, with maybe one or two changes, in the running each year.

So the league has become extremely top-heavy due to a number of structural factors and gradual changes over the years, which makes the games themselves something akin to a Madden game, and takes the excitement out of the season for roughly two-thirds or more of the teams. This hasn't hurt the league quite yet, though, because die-hard fans from the NFL's golden age of the 70s through the early 2000s, when the league was what we might call more democratic in terms of team chances (despite the salary cap only coming into play in 1992), still exist in huge numbers.

Well, I won't watch until the players stop disrespecting the flag, but I speak only for myself. I'm sure Tyler is much more in tune with the authentic popular mood than I.

What was the scripture reading in your church today?

NFL helmets, worn by all players, have a US flag decal on the back. And how does not standing for the national anthem have anything to do with "dishonoring" the flag itself? Furthermore, what's the purpose of "honoring" the flag? Especially prior to an athletic event. If this ceremony is so important maybe the anthem should be played more often, like after every touchdown in football and home run in baseball.

I think y81 was being sarcastic, but it's true most of NFL die-hards are probably Trump supporters, statistically, hence social conservatives.

It’s entirely possible to be both profitable AND headed for a cliff.

Moms will end football. Period. The dads who played in high school will fade, and the rest will switch to lacrosse. After perhaps a last gasp sentimental counter trend rally.

Soon we will all have a friend with cte from high school ball. It will be impossible to ignore.

The game will become harder and harder to watch.

It will just change the composition of players, lots more from lower income groups and overseas, less middle class players. The fans don't care who's in the helmets, they are rooting for laundry.

Football will never go away completely, it will probably become like baseball, which is still very profitable but no longer the king of team sports.

NFL popularity kept going up up up, peaking about 3 years ago at an extraordinary level.

It's hardly surprising it's down from stratosphere of c. 2015.

A sober reminder that business strategies work until they stop working.

How many reversals other business have endured and are still great business? Coca Cola anyone?

It might surprise you that some NFL positions require reasonable IQ as rank by the percentage of draftees that have to undertake the Wonderlic IQ test. CBs receive the most concussions and they are close to the bottom of the rank. It might be interesting to compare the draft time score with the score after retiring.

Rank % Niq Npos Pos

1 64.7 11 17 QB

2 42.9 3 7 C

3 38.9 7 18 LB

4 33.3 7 21 TE


11 20.0 5 25 CB

11 20.0 4 20 DT

13 18.2 2 11 SS

14 14.3 1 7 OLB

15 11.5 6 52 WR

The article mentions that some players, notably QBs, are protected from head injuries more than others. But still, even with the new 'heads up' tackling rules, who wants to match a game knowing the brains of the athletes are being battered to mush?

I predict a new golden age for the game of chess, once the NFL dies.

I am looking forward to Tackle Chess

It's already here (actually, better than your idea):

Well, sponsor might be willing to pay more because there aren't many media spots left where you can get an audience of millions other than live sporting events: people no longer watch linear TV, people no longer watch the 6 o'clock news simultaneously. And on top of this, sporting events are the only circumstance where people aged 35 or less actually tune into conventional TV.

So, sponsors are willing to pay more for one of the last opportunities of getting an audience of millions all tuned at the same time in spite of the falling popularity of some sports.

By the way, it would be fun to compare those numbers for the NFL with numbers for other major sporting competitions. One might find that the sponsorship prices are probably independent of their popularity trend.

Actually even that is changing, the under 35 set mostly streams their viewing and rarely pays for it. Many just watch clip shows and highlights. That said, sports fandom is about being in a tribe and so young people will always pick a tribe and go to the bar to watch it with their fellows.

The brain injuries are troubling, but the real problem is it is so boring to watch. Kickoff? Commercial break. Cart broken body of the field? Commercial break. Now there's a video review. It just drags on and on.

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