The Modern NFL: Those Who Don't Like It Don't Like It A Lot
A couple of years ago, Canadian author and social behaviour wonk Malcom Gladwell famously remarked that, in 25 years, no one will play football. (He also said no one would eat red meat, but for the moment let’s focus on the dire prediction for the NFL.) In the weeks after making the remark, Gladwell expanded his hypothesis to say that the NFL is living in the past and has no connection to the society it inhabits.
This attention grabber seemed a little far-fetched when Gladwell spoke. The NFL has lapped the field in popularity among team sports and rakes in over six billion dollars a year from TV networks anxious to broadcast the games. If ever there were a lock cinch for security it’s the NFL shield and its attendant communication, marketing and gambling tendrils.
But now the first chinks in its armour are perhaps starting to emerge. The TV ratings for the 2016 season are tepid. While diehards, poolies and gamblers remain fixated on the league, a lot of casual fans have been distracted by other things this fall. The U.S. election has no doubt sucked some of the oxygen from the room with its all-encompassing drama.
But there is plenty of discontent with the product on display from observers of the sport. When iconic NBC broadcaster Al Michaels dumps on the product on-air (he recently asked colleague Cris Collinsworth if he could remember a punt when there wasn’t a penalty flag since high school), you know there is something missing.
Herewith a few suggestions why the NFL has become unwatchable without a wager or a drinking problem.
1. The salary cap was always lauded for its ability to create parity. “On any given Sunday one team can beat another…” etc. For those who worship the crest in the 32 NFL cities this is supposed to maintain interest through the endless 17 weeks of the regular schedule. For some it still does. But the flip side of “On any given Sunday…” is that on any given Sunday a team can lose for much the same reasons.
With talent in the league diluted by the salary cap, losses are often for capricious reasons having nothing to do with talent. Refereeing, injury, coaching decisions— all take on exaggerated impact in a league where the margins between best and worst are razor thin. Many fans are put off by the randomness of this process. As talent is devalued, so too is winning. And fans like wining teams.
2. Penalties. The NFL has long been lauded for its ability to gerrymander the rules of its sport to encourage scoring and more dynamic plays. The result, however, is a rule book that more resembles the IRS tax code than any sporting competition. As Michaels laments, the flow of games is constantly interrupted by a scrum of referees huddling to divine which of the million NFL bylaws been breached. The Oakland Raiders recently chalked up a record 23 (!) penalties accepted in a single game. As a result, games are unwatchable tedious.
On most occasions there is some foul detected. But the proliferation of penalties says that the game might be too difficult to play by the Spanish Inquisition standards of the rule book. Any game that has more than five flags per team is a problem the league needs to address. And don’t get me started about consistency from one officiating crew to the next.
3. Commercials. The NFL doesn’t get $6.2 billion a year for TV rights for nothing. In a time when viewers are avoiding programming pockmarked with commercials, the NFL was thought to be immune to the ennui for ads. But as watching commercials has become more foreign to consumers, an NFL game broadcast bloated to three hours by endless commercial breaks is living in the past (as Gladwell says). Record a game, then fast forward through all the commercials and the halftime onslaught. It’ll take you no more than a half hour. People’s time is more valued than ever. The NFL needs to figure this out.
4. Injuries. Put simply, “On any given Sunday…” there are too many of the NFL’s stars not playing due to injury. Despite attempts to make the game safer, players are falling like ten pins every week. Watching the 60th man on the roster start on Sunday is not what fans sign up for. The NFL needs to morph toward rugby's rules on contact (no head shots of any kind, no excessively violent tackles, no equipment used as a weapon) to keep players in lineups. Having them inhabit normal bodies, not 325-pound drug-fuelled colossi, would be a place to start.
5. Colin Kaepernick. His kneeling for social justice is supposedly turning off fans. This is highly problematic. What turns off fans is the fact that while his mouth is in fine form, he can’t throw a decent spiral when it matters, black life or not.
6. Roger Goodell. If ever a man were a visitor from a previous age it’s the current NFL commissioner. He’s whiffed on a number of serious social issues concerning players in domestic assault and sexual violence. He went to war with the league’s No. 1 attraction over deflated footballs, for heaven’s sake. His responses on behalf of the NFL to the concussion issues have been a day late and a dollar short almost all the time. It’s not all his doing. He’s a puppet. But you can find a better, shinier puppet on any street corner. Fans hate him. Time for the chop.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy can be heard on his podcast The Full Count With Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com and iTunes podcast centre. Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).