All season long, Yahoo Sports will be discussing What’s Next in the NFL. Who are the next hot teams, players and coaches? We’ll let you know right here. But today, we look at the darker side of that idea: what if What’s Next is, there is No Next?
Football’s here! Football! You’ve waited so, so long for this. It’s been an eternity since Tom Brady wiped the scraps of Atlanta Falcons off his cleats back in February. You’ve sat by patiently, watching the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Dodgers scrabble around through the sweltering summer, but now it’s OUR TURN, BABY! FOOTBALL!
You and everyone you know are stoked for Thursday night. You and everyone you know are setting your fantasy lineups, plotting your grilling schedule, deciding whether to invite over your brother-in-law who always brings cheap beer but drinks your good stuff. You’ve got access to the NFL on widescreen TVs and your phone and in stadiums more awe-inspiring than the Grand Canyon. These are the best of all possible days for NFL fans, and it’s easy and seductive to believe this will always be the case.
But what if …
… what if this IS the mountaintop? What if it doesn’t get any better from here? What if the NFL is already looking down into that Grand Canyon, and there’s nothing ahead but a long, slow decline?
The NFL will be around 20 years from now; if nothing else, stadium deals that have cities in fiscal hammerlocks will ensure that. But will your children and grandchildren revere the sport the way you do, or will they regard the NFL the way 2017 America regards Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe—bygone icons, still casting flickering light but little heat?
For all the NFL’s relentless self-mythologizing and talk of global domination, there are clouds on the horizon. Each of the threats to the NFL deserves—and, in many cases, already has—its own investigation, if not its own book. Taken individually, the NFL could withstand each of these dangers. Taken together? Not even Bill Belichick could scheme up a defense to hold off all these at once.
Those athletes (and, uh, horse) are the current leading lights of four sports that once dominated the American landscape: NASCAR, tennis, boxing and horse racing. Truex is the current NASCAR regular-season champion. Muguruza won this year’s Wimbledon. Joshua is the current IBF heavyweight champion. Tapwrit won the third leg of this year’s Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. And if you knew all four of those off the top of your head without looking them up, you’d better be getting paid for your sports knowledge.
Point being: in American culture, nothing lasts forever except boundless, groundless optimism. The main reason why football might not last forever at the forefront of our national consciousness is that nothing ever has.
But let’s dig a bit deeper than that.
You know how terrible horror movies from the ‘80s always start the sinister music two beats before the ugliness goes down? You’re getting a cue to prep yourself. Last year’s early season ratings declines were the first minor-key notes in what could be one hell of a jump-shock.
You know all the theoretical reasons for ratings declines: cord-cutting, problems with the on-field product, too many ads, the presidential election, multiple non-sports entertainment choices, political stances by the players, disgust with the NFL’s endorsement of alleged and convicted criminals and so on. The truth is that all of these contributed to some degree, but the larger truth is this: in a disconnected world, there’s nothing that binds us together on a pop-culture level; the only reason football has in the past is because of the lack of other options. There’s an upper limit to ratings, and we may well have found it. Advertisers are already aware of that; are you?
It’s a bedrock fact that you’ve got to be a hell of an NFL fan to attend a game, much less pay for season tickets. The experience is a costly, all-day commitment, one that an ever-increasing number of fans are rejecting. Why spend more than $500 – the average cost to take a family of four to an NFL game in 2016 – to go to a single game when you could flip that into a dedicated sports shrine in your home and watch every game, free bathroom and cheaper beer included?
NFL teams have seen this one coming, and have tried with both carrot and stick to entice fans to attend more games. Gameday experiences are now closer to theme parks than Friday night lights, with food and entertainment options so vast you don’t even have to bother with the game you’re watching. On the flip side, more than half of the NFL’s teams require you to purchase a seat license to get tickets, meaning you’re investing mortgage payments and home loans in your team. At what point will fans decide seeing a real live NFL game just isn’t worth the financial and logistical hassle?
Look at the numbers: attendance at once-foundational NFL teams has fallen off a cliff. The Washington Redskins were at 85 percent capacity last year, and anecdotal accounts put the 49ers’ Levi’s Field at 60 to 70 percent full at times. When pillars of the NFL crumble like that, it’s time to worry.
Give the NFL credit for trying to export good ol’ American football all over the globe, with games in or planned for England, Germany, Mexico and China. But the NFL’s getting lapped in the global arena, and not just by That Other Sport The Foreigners Call Football. No, the NBA is absolutely smoking the NFL on a global stage, both exporting its players’ fame—far more people around the world know Kevin Durant and LeBron James than Ezekiel Elliott and Aaron Rodgers—and developing and importing international talent.
Soccer is the world’s sport, baseball has a pipeline from both Japan and the rest of the Western hemisphere straight to America and the 1992 Dream Team put the NBA on the global map. The NFL has only its own reputation to ride, and at the moment, that’s not enough to carry it into the upper echelon of global sports. (Side note: tell me you wouldn’t want to see American football in the Olympics. The Patriots, or even Alabama, literally COULD beat the rest of the world.)
Yeah, yeah, we know, you’re never going to watch another football game because Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem, and neither is anyone you know. Sure. Truth is that protests by Kaepernick and others have had little effect on the NFL as a business. (Click that link for details. Remember, friends, feelings aren’t facts.) But the NFL’s brand is taking a hit regardless of what actual facts say. Note how ESPN now must fend off the inane and largely groundless idea that it’s “gone liberal.”
The real threat the NFL faces isn’t the number of people threatening to boycott the league for political reasons. That number’s largely insignificant. (A mere three percent, according to one national survey.) The real problem comes if the NFL gets stamped with a label—“racist” if no team signs Kaepernick, “politically correct” if players continue to kneel—that wipes away all nuance. You may have noticed that many of your Facebook friends lack the ability to discuss complex political issues in detail, particularly in relation to sports. Unfortunately for them, “stick to sports” is no longer even remotely defensible in 2017; unfortunately for us, the people who yell that always seem to yell very, VERY LOUD.
Combine that with the fact that Donald Trump’s campaign siphoned off some of the NFL’s ratings—and his endlessly headline-generating administration will do the same—and the NFL has a problem in Washington that, for once, has nothing to do with Daniel Snyder and the Redskins.
Each year brings stories of players retiring after just a handful of games in the league, citing the cumulative effect of concussions. The fear of a connection between repeated blows to the head and the degenerative disease of CTE is real, even if CTE isn’t necessarily the cause of all player problems. And fewer NFL players are willing to risk the long-term damage to their lives that could come from seasons in the NFL’s trenches. The NFL isn’t solely to blame—these players have been taking hits since childhood—but as players opt out of the football life earlier and earlier, the league’s prospects narrow.
There will always be players willing to play football, just as there are always fighters willing to box. But just as the sight of a Parkinson’s-crippled Ali gave many boxing fans second thoughts about the sport, the departure—or decline—of many former players could force fans to take a harder look at what we call entertainment.
Youth football in decline
As heretical as it might sound in football-mad enclaves like Texas and Florida, kids aren’t playing as much football. Some are drifting to other sports like soccer and baseball, and some locales have dropped the sport entirely. A Chicago-area park district dropped tackle football entirely last month after only 11 kids signed up for the league; at the same time, flag football and baseball saw significant gains. Whether parents are worried about concussions or angling their future pro athletes for more lucrative, less-violent careers like baseball and basketball, the effect is the same.
When you lose players, you lose battles. When you lose moms, you lose the war.
Ever watch a teenager work Snapchat? It’s an impressive thing, swiping and posting and assessing and responding, over and over again, with all the speed and grace of a symphony conductor. Or consider—right now—how many entertainment options you have quite literally at your own fingertips, from Netflix to YouTube to—HEY, DON’T YOU CLICK AWAY FROM THIS ARTICLE, WE’RE NOT DONE YET.
Now compare that with the NFL, which has about 11 minutes of action over the course of a three-hour block of time. There’s an awful lot of standing around, untangling of bodies, coaches yelling at fields, dudes in black-and-white under hoods. See the disconnect here? Like it or not, we’re in a hyperconnected, hyperactive, attention-deficit society. You may think nothing of kicking back for three hours watching football. Your kids or grandkids might well see that as worse than solitary confinement. Why watch one single sport when you can take in a dozen streams of entertainment?
And let’s not forget that the days of the NFL showing up on just two or three channels are long gone. The iconic Monday Night Football has already jumped to cable, and we’ve already seen games only accessible online. (Like right here at Yahoo.) If you’re not willing to pay up, you’re out of luck—and increasing rates of cord-cutting are suggesting that many Americans are deciding they can live without entertainment options they’d previously considered untouchable. There’s a gigantic glowing lesson-slash-warning for the NFL right there.
Granted, many of the threats facing the NFL are years, even decades away. Some will materialize, some will fade away…and some we can’t even see coming right now will rise up. The only certainty is change; popularity wanes and celebrity fades, as half-full NASCAR tracks, anonymous heavyweight champions and unread Wimbledon recaps can attest.
Sure, the NFL’s on top of the world right now. But as we’ve seen over and over again in the last year, starting with a certain Super Bowl—right about when you start thinking “what could possibly go wrong?” … that’s when you find out.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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