Why the NFL Is Thriving, Not Failing

How quickly does it take an entire country to turn against a sport?

View during the national anthem before the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 24, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

At one time, baseball, boxing and horse racing dominated sports lore for decades, with names like Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth and Secretariat making headlines in American – and around the globe. But in a 1972 Gallup poll, football overtook baseball as the most popular sport among Americans for the first time since the poll began in 1937. So why, suddenly, does it seem as if football is failing?

Giancarlo Stanton just hit 59 home runs for the Miami Marlins, a total reached by Ruth just twice in his career (albeit in a much different era), and that news barely registered outside of the baseball world. Anthony Joshua is a British heavyweight who is 20-0 with 20 knockouts, the best heavyweight in a very long time, but he's yet to make a mark in the U.S. And Triple Crown races often seem like an event that most people hear about on the day of. These sports only seem to be going backward over the last 30 years while making room for MMA, soccer and football – the latter of which was still the most popular sport in the country in the 2013 Gallup poll, basically lapping the field at 39% to second-place baseball’s 14%.

But is football's time atop the mountain about to hit a landslide?

Like boxing before it, concerns about the brutality of the sport, none bigger than concussions and football's relationship to CTE, are being used as starting points for why the NFL's ratings may be dropping. There's also the matter of Colin Kaepernick's kneeling movement and if fans are turned off from the league because it didn't step in to stop the protests, Thursday Night Football's potential danger of putting players in harm's way because of a short three-day break between games, and simply the fact that the primetime matchups are often not good.

Among the skeptics who say that the NFL is heading towards a steep decline is Mark Cuban, "the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks," as he's described in the opening credits of his show Shark Tank. Cuban has noted in interviews that the NFL's average viewer is getting older and that kids don't know the sport, nor do their parents want them to watch because of the potential dangers of football.

"Fewer kids will play tackle football and more will play basketball because parents are afraid of the prospects of physical and mental damage," said Cuban in an email to Rolling Stone, who also noted that eSports and NBA2K are becoming sports of their own for younger generations. "I think it's important to get kids to Games to make them fans."

And certainly, the future success of any sport, or any product really, is heavily dependent on what future generations of adults think about it. If kids now don't care for football, then as adults they are less likely to support it with their eyes and wallets.

However, there are other sides to these argument and they aren't heard as often because "NFL Continues to Do Extremely Well for 40th Year in a Row" is not news, while "Disaster Lies Ahead for Major Sport" is likely going to draw some attention. "Player Who Committed Suicide Had CTE" is a story, but "NFL Players Are Half as Likely as Average Americans to Kill Themselves" rarely is.

This year, we witnessed the continued message in media surrounding concussions, Kaepernick and ratings that football is headed toward its demise. That it is going the way of boxing and horse racing. But there are also plenty of points to be made to the counter-argument that show that the NFL is thriving and that it may continue to dominate for decades to come.

As of 2012, 63% of Americans said they were fans of professional football, while 49% said they were fans of college football, both the highest figures in the history of the poll. If football has declined considerably, it has only happened very recently. And the numbers don't suggest that a steep decline has happened as of yet.

Myth: NFL Ratings Are Bad Now
While most people are aware that the Super Bowl is the most-watched TV program of any given year, hauling in over 100 million viewers annually, fewer may realize that your average primetime game is also a significant ratings coup for the networks.

Week 13's Eagles-Seahawks matchup on Sunday Night Football showed a ratings increase of 14% from the Week 13 Sunday Night Football game of 2016, a game that also featured the Seahawks. The next night, the Steelers-Bengals Monday Night Football game showed an increase of 30% over the Colts-Jets game of a year earlier. There's little reason to think that having the rights to show an NFL game is a major burden or concern for these networks.

In 2011, the NFL signed a nine-year, $27 billion TV deal with Fox, CBS, and NBC. That showed an increase from $1.9 billion a year to $3 billion a year from the previous deal, and the league is also receiving $1.9 billion a year from ESPN for Monday Night Football, $1 billion a year from DirectTV and additional revenue from Westwood One, NFL Network and more. At that time, the average NFL team was worth double that of a Major League Baseball team and triple that of an NBA team; the in-place TV deal with the networks is set to run through 2022, and are obviously not changing even if the ratings and attendance did indeed dip – which they barely are. Before you ever count the revenue from a single ticket or Joe Flacco jersey, the league has already pulled in $7 billion per year from their TV deals.

Why so much? Because no league does close to the same numbers as the NFL and the 2016-2017 seasons are barely any different in that regard. The Week 9 Sunday Night Football game between the Dolphins and Raiders finished with 16.36 million viewers; Game 1 of the NBA Finals this year between the Warriors and Cavs had 18.7 million viewers. The Raiders and Dolphins are two of the worst and least-watchable teams that professional football has to offer. The Warriors and Cavs are two of the most star-studded basketball teams ever.

The following Sunday night featured the Patriots blowing out the now-terrible Broncos 41-16 and 22.5 million people tuned in to watch a game void of intrigue, more than any of the Finals games outside of the deciding Game 5, which had 24.4 million. Pats-Broncos had more viewers than any World Series game between the Astros and Dodgers save for Game 7. Basically, a bad primetime game in the NFL is akin to your average championship game in the NBA or MLB.

Still, Cuban sees the value in getting families to attend the games. "The NBA, at least with the Mavs, is far less expensive than the NFL," Cuban explains. "We know we need to get families to games to make them fans." He's right in that the average NFL ticket price is more than 50% higher than the average NBA ticket, but as of now, fans continue to attend.

On the whole, the leaders in attendance for an NBA game are the Bulls, 76ers and Cavs – each of whom has an average of about 20,000 fans per home game. The Cowboys draw over 92,000 fans per game. The next 13 teams in terms of attendance average between 70,000 and 78,000 fans per game. The worst attendance belongs to the Bengals at 54,000. Even on a weekend where anti-kneeler fans tried to organize protests preventing people from going to games, attendance rose about 1%.

So NFL teams are doing more than fine in both ratings and attendance and we still have five more seasons under the current TV deal structure. By their next negotiation, with ratings trends still showing progress year-over-year when the games are intriguing or involve well-established brands like the Patriots, Cowboys and Packers, it seems probable that the NFL's next TV deal will break its own personal records.

Cuban notes that cord-cutters and a shift from TV viewing to Internet viewing is in fact a sign that things are going to be getting even better for how leagues will make money. "On TV, a network is one of 100 choices for 90 million households with subscription TV. On the Internet, it's far, far, far harder to draw an audience. There are unlimited choices."

So Cuban sees the value in moving NFL and NBA games to streaming services because sports are a proven product with a built-in viewership. "Pay up on the NFL and NBA contracts and you have a far more predictable audience and a platform to promote and sell. And with TV you always have to send them somewhere else to buy. With online, see an ad, click or swipe and buy. All that data they don't otherwise have. The games are far more valuable online than they are on TV, so rights are going up for everyone."

As long as 110 million people are turning into the Super Bowl each year and 25 million people are determined to watch football every Monday night, then future TV and Internet deals are going to far surpass the $7 billion annually that the NFL is already making. We have not yet seen a decline from that peak.

Myth: All NFL Players Will Get CTE and Have Adverse Effects, Like Suicidal Thoughts
As told to Eric Adelson of Yahoo Sports this year, there's an unsettling trend of blaming all mental troubles for football players on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) even though we have no way of diagnosing the disease on a living person:

"There are a lot of people who are convinced they have this condition," says Beth Pieroth, a Chicago-based neuropsychologist who treats athletes from high school to the pros. "Even those who are not retired pro athletes. The most distressing thing is when you have athletes with a history of one concussion, or two, who are coming in having decided they have CTE and their life is now over. It’s incredibly distressing."

As much as people yearn to get answers to everything as quickly as they can Google it, the truth is that there's still plenty we don't know about CTE, its connections to football, and its likelihood of destroying a person's life. We know that former NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson committed suicide and were posthumously diagnosed with CTE, but we can never definitely link their suicides to the disease. Aaron Hernandez also killed himself, and also had CTE, but he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison and any number of comprehensible things could be linked to his decision to commit suicide.

And while there may be a public perception that NFL players are more likely to commit suicide, studies have instead shown that they are about half as likely to end their own lives as the average person. In Concussion, the Will Smith film about the NFL's handling of concussions and CTE, Dr. William Barr of NYU had this to say to Adelson:

"Anyone who is saying CTE causes suicide is not being responsible," says NYU’s Barr. "All I say is that a [patient] died and had abnormal pathologies in the brain. In my experience, the medical community has been irresponsible and has looked at the newspapers rather than the journals."

Barr has also noted in the past that heavy drinking may actually be worse for you than Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries, and cited a research paper by Grant L. Iverson that chronic cannabis use may actually be worse for your brain than MTBI. It's not a fact by any means, but certainly it is a fact that many Americans are doing more harm to themselves than football players are just by what they choose to eat and how active they are; Some football players will suffer major injuries, but over 100 million children worldwide are obese.

There may also be a perception that NFL players have shorter lifespans, but studies have shown that they actually might live about three years longer, on average. NFL players have also been shown to have lower rates of cancer-related deaths, and heart disease leading to death. They are much more likely to develop dementia and arthritis, and nobody would argue that sustaining concussions is good for you, but when the New York Times ran a story earlier this summer with a headline that 110 of 111 brains of NFL players studied had CTE, it led to the assumption for many that, "If you play football, you will get CTE." And if people believe that CTE equals suicide or PTSD or early onset dementia, then it's an A-to-C conclusion in which the pervasive thought is that NFL players are much more likely to eventually hurt themselves or others, or that they’ll lose their chance at a satisfactory quality of life.

As Iverson said at a recent concussion conference: "Doubt everything in terms of what you’ve heard and what you think you may know."

There is not enough evidence to support the theory that pro football players will get CTE and that CTE will eventually destroy them. If we are using anecdotes to support the dangerous side of football, we could just as easily use anecdotes to claim that football make you more likely to be shaped like an Avenger, more likely to still be hitting the gym in your 50s, and more likely to have a place in the Hamptons.

The league must continue to work towards creating a safer environment and must never ignore the ongoing dangers of head injuries and chronic pain that can come through years of playing, but how much the average fan actually knows about the dangers of CTE rarely goes beyond a headline and brief synopsis.


Myth: Colin Kaepernick Killed the NFL
We rarely see media storms in sports like the one we've seen surrounding the protests during the anthem, beginning with Kaepernick sitting on the bench in the 2016 preseason, continuing with players like Marshawn Lynch and Michael Bennett doing it in the 2017 preseason, and then being brought back up again when Donald Trump said that owner should start firing players who protest.

And yet the impact of these protests, positively or negatively, cannot be measured in anything other than the numbers of clicks and views that the media gets when running a story about Colin Kaepernick-related protests.

The reality is that for every Sunday in which all eyes are on the players in pregame, like in Week 3 – just after Trump's "get that son of a bitch off the field" comments – we have many more Sundays in which stories about pre-game protests are buried underneath scores, highlights, injury updates and fantasy news. It is simply not sustainably relevant until something new sparks it again, like the president getting involved or entire teams opting to stay off the field until kickoff. 

Perhaps the next story will be about a high-profile white player protesting during the anthem, or an in-game protest, or any number of things, but even those who claim that the Kaepernick trend turned them off from the NFL can't reasonably argue that it is an ongoing distraction.

What are those anti-Kaepernick so angry about anyway? He has, for all intents and purposes, been blackballed by the league for the attention he brought to himself and the outcry from those Americans who don't want their team – or any team – to sign him. In that respect: They won. In terms of getting support from the President of the United States and many owners, including Jerry Jones: They won. For now, the protests are very much in the rearview for fans and weekly stories on the matter have all but disappeared: We are far too distracted by “what's next?” to remain focused on "What was that?" for longer than a day.

So what's next for the NFL? Probably much more of the same. Football has been around for over 100 years. The Super Bowl has been around for over 50. It has been the most popular sport in the country for almost that long and if it going the way of Ali and Secretariat, we won't see the results of that for a very long time.