Two years ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called the NFL “hogs” heading toward a slaughter. He pointed to the league oversaturating its audience with a good product and called it an act of greed as the NFL marched to expand televised games and offseason coverage.
“Just watch,” Cuban said in a March 2014 conversation with reporters. “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business.
“I’m just telling you: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting hoggy.”
How’s this for a slaughter: Thanks in part to Monday night’s presidential debate, the NFL’s mega franchise “Monday Night Football” scored a 5.7 overnight rating. That is believed to be one of the worst in the history of the production. It’s also nearly a 22 percent decline from the last time this happened – a 2012 Monday night game between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, which had the misfortune of going against the final presidential debate in 2012 and a Game 7 of the National League Championship Series between the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals.
Granted, Monday’s debate was the most watched in history, drawing in 84 million viewers, according to Nielsen. But it’s not just Monday Night Football viewership that is in decline. Sunday night ratings are down, too.
The league was bracing for Monday’s fallout, too. Advertising firms doing business with the NFL had already been told to expect a hit in viewership due to expectations that Monday night’s presidential debate would likely be one of the highest rated in history.
To the NFL’s credit, that’s a good excuse to have a bad night. But that loss wasn’t exactly a one-off situation. While the NFL is still a ratings juggernaut, the viewership numbers have shown noticeable fatigue this season. “Monday Night Football” viewership was already down a combined 12 percent the first two weeks of the season. That’s not a start the NFL wanted, considering the average number of viewers for the franchise has declined three straight seasons starting in 2013 (13.68 million viewers per game in 2013; 13.35 million 2014; 12.9 million in 2015), according to the Nielsen ratings.
It’s worth noting the negative publicity the NFL has experienced during that decline. Domestic violence became a high-profile issue for a league that has been extremely protective of its brand. That has included a number of ugly visual moments: the video of Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée in an elevator; photos and a child abuse allegation against Adrian Peterson; an ugly police report and alleged abuse photos of Greg Hardy’s ex-girlfriend.
Beyond confronting domestic violence, the league also settled a class-action lawsuit tied to concussions and the health of former players. All while current players have explored the harsh reality of brain injuries in the sport and their quality of life beyond football.
There has also been the Aaron Hernandez murder prosecution; the ongoing battle between the NFL and NFLPA over disciplinary power; and the deflate-gate investigation, which put NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at odds with one of his biggest allies in New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and ended with the suspension of quarterback Tom Brady, who will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history.
All of those developments took place before Colin Kaepernick sparked the social consciousness of some NFL players with a weekly protest during the national anthem. While Goodell and NFL teams have been careful to embrace the movement involving Kaepernick and other players, polls have suggested the demonstrations have created (or revealed) some deep racial divisions inside the league’s fan base.
Has all of that contributed to knocking the NFL off its axis?
That’s debatable. Doubters will point to other factors to explain the trending numbers, things such as declining cable subscribers, the rise of the RedZone channel and alternate platforms to consume NFL games (such as Twitter). Others have suggested it’s the reality of having a season coincide with a presidential election cycle.
Whatever the reasons – and there might be a wide mix of them – the numbers are going in the wrong direction for the league. With the sluggish start through three weeks, the NFL is already on its way to a fourth consecutive year of a “MNF” ratings decline. It doesn’t end there, either. NFL viewership through the first two weeks of the season was down almost across the board, most alarmingly in the “bellwether” prime-time slots. For example, NBC’s first three prime-time games of the season (the season-opening Thursday kickoff and two Sunday night games) were down 12 percent.
The league has been unflinching in the start but a continuation of that trend would be a significant problem for Goodell, whose top achievement as boss has been the bottom line of the NFL ledger. As it stands, NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith has already stated that the ratings decline is a significant concern. At some point, Park Avenue has to wonder if the league’s popularity may be experiencing, or even drawing back, from the peak Cuban predicted.
There will be some eye-rolling over that suggestion. Particularly given Cuban’s inflammatory “slaughter” language. When Cuban took those shots in 2014, some opined that it was little more than NBA jealousy, spiteful comments from a league that was a distant third place to the NFL in terms of revenue production and labor agreements. After all, why should anyone in the NFL care what an NBA owner had to say? Reports put the NFL’s revenue production in the 2015 season north of $13 billion, while the NBA’s was just over $5 billion. Meanwhile, NBA owners have arguably been dominated at the bargaining table, locked into a fully guaranteed contract structure and a bloating $113 million salary cap (including luxury tax limits) that has led to spiraling salaries for middling players.
This is why NFL owners and the league office might snicker at Cuban when he suggested the most popular sports brand in the U.S. is ripe for a fall. And why not? The NFL has been comfortably leading a decades-long tickertape parade, toasting its success during an unrivaled rise in popularity and profitability. For a while now, the NFL’s ego has been inflated by a widely accepted theme: that the league was largely bulletproof. That there was no such thing as too much NFL. That fans had a bottomless appetite and a ceiling on future TV viewership was mythical. If anything, the NFL has attacked one overriding problem more than any other over the past decade: how to bring more of its product to the masses.
The result has been the buildup of an NFL season that never ends. Despite varied complaints from players, coaches and the NFLPA, the league now plays games three nights a week. In December, Saturday will be added to that slate. The Super Bowl has been pushed to February, resulting in the NFL’s season spanning six months from training camps to the title game. And now, the offseason has been promoted by the NFL and television networks into a frenzied monetization of events: the annual scouting combine, free agency, the draft, the schedule release and a summer of organized team activities and minicamps. Ask anyone in the NFL, and they will tell you there is only one month of downtime, from mid-June to mid-July. And even that has been turned into a “buzzy” four weeks of contract extension talks.
What does all this mean? We don’t know yet. But 2½ years after Mark Cuban made his comments suggesting a fall from grace was on the horizon, there’s little doubt that NFL television and media coverage is looking more obese than ever. Whether that saturation is leading to a TV withdrawal in the early weeks of this season is debatable. But one thing is not: fewer people have been tuning in to NFL games this year.
It’s not a slaughter yet, but the NFL has to be concerned about where this is all going. As Cuban said, there’s a line between getting fat on success or becoming a hog with greed. The NFL’s product is bigger, more saturated and more scrutinized than ever. And it might be a good time for Goodell and the owners to consider where that line is.