It took an untold number of private meetings, owner-to-owner calls, public-relations battles and leaning on television partners, but the NFL appears to have finally accomplished what it struggled to do for two straight seasons – reverse a two-year recession in TV ratings.
With seemingly each passing week this season, the NFL is being presented with new evidence that its spiraling fears about a disenchanted fanbase was more a crossroads of circumstance than the first step off a cliff. The latest being a deep study by USA Today that President Donald Trump’s trolling had a weak impact on the league’s overall viewership. Instead, the study found that the quality of football – not the marching orders of political “tribalism” – was a far bigger driver (or deterrent) of a viewing audience.
That alone should deliver a resounding message to team owners: Stop fretting over politics and Trump when it comes to ratings. It’s about the quality of the game.
Is … was … always will be.
The 2018 resurgence
If you don’t believe that message, look no further than this season’s viewing numbers, which are consistently showing a solid rebound from a two-year lull. Aside from some “Monday Night Football” duds, the league has to be pleased with this year’s trends, particularly in light of a fast-growing “over-the-top” streaming audience (of which Yahoo Sports is a partner) that is watching games from handheld devices.
Not coincidentally, this bounce is happening in the midst of one of the NFL’s most entertaining starts to a season in years, with the league’s scoring, touchdowns and touchdown passes all on a record-setting pace the first month of the season. Meanwhile, there has been a litany of overtime drama, veteran and injury storylines, a renaissance of sorts in Cleveland and a groundswell of young quarterbacks who are creating new excitement across a large swath of the league.
There are a lot of reasons to be attracted to the NFL right now – in spite of rules foolishness with helmet-to-helmet and roughing-the-passer penalties. But even those flash points have been tempered, with helmet hits drawing only a fraction of the flags that were prevalent in the preseason, and pass rushers adjusting to a new normal on a weekly basis.
Miscalculation of NFL team owners
Frankly, it’s amazing that it took a detailed media study to understand the popularity of the league is more driven by the product than by political schisms. That should sting for a group of owners that have an unyielding belief they are always right. In hindsight, the arrogance in decision-making and reactive nature of the league office only fanned the flames of a fire that wasn’t damaging the bottom line.
What happened over the past two years with the NFL’s ratings was exactly what the market said it was: The audience moved away from linear viewing habits and sought more ways to consume what it wanted. The league knew trends were changing in television. It knew ratings were taking a collective dent in nearly every corner of American television. And it also knew that of those who were getting gouged by the Great Television Recession, the NFL was losing the least when it came to the bigger picture.
We see that now. And with the weak Trump ripple as a backdrop, it shows us something that can’t be ignored: Team owners completely botched how they reacted to the president, largely because they were unprepared and unaccustomed to being shouted at by someone on a platform they couldn’t crush with their own public-relations machine.
Under normal circumstances – where the league can control the message without a massive outside influence interfering – the NFL likely wouldn’t have chased its own tail when it came to player protests in the NFL. Instead, it would have cut a deal with the Players’ Coalition to fund more activism in communities, then gritted its teeth through the remaining players who decided to go their own way with protest efforts. Eventually, the league would have found its way to where it is now, with the chaos having largely passed.
But Trump’s megaphone created a frenzy inside the NFL’s ownership collective. A fraternity that was not only clueless as to how to deal with Trump, but ended up cannibalizing itself by being strong-armed by a handful of members – like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and Houston Texans’ Bob McNair – who pushed for a harder line against players. Now we know the mistake for what it was: a panicked response to the tip of a political wave rather than a reasoned reaction to the underlying data that was driving ratings.
Has the NFL weathered the storm?
There are signs the league has learned from those previous mistakes. And it has something to do with why the anthem controversy appears to be dying out. The first move was to smartly shelve an anthem conduct rule that was headed for nothing but more trouble. While the rule is not officially dead, it’s harmlessly sitting dormant in “talks” between the league and the NFL Players Association.
Thus far, there’s no real indication either side is upset the ill-conceived overreaction by team owners is sitting in purgatory. Some NFL players are still kneeling or sitting during the anthem, including the Carolina Panthers’ Eric Reid, who recently signed. Others are standing and taking part in the efforts of the Players Coalition, a group that is working with the league to promote community-based efforts in NFL cities. All the while, nobody is getting fined. Nobody is being forced to stay in locker rooms or make political choices about personal freedoms. Every game day, whatever happens, happens. And then the league moves forward with the product.
Of course, it helps the NFL’s efforts that television networks have yielded to the league’s desires and stopped showing the national anthem during broadcasts. It also helps that Trump has had his focus diverted to other avenues for the past several months. The broadcast situation won’t change – but the league owners know Trump’s silence most certainly will.
The difference now is the owners have two years of insight to lean on. Two years of mistakes that should shape their next step when it comes to the product. So long as Trump is in office, there will be another round of political cannon fire. But neither that or the presidential megaphone should speak louder than the underlying data. When it comes to the ratings, only one thing matters.
The rise and fall of the NFL’s viewership tide is about the quality of the game.
Is … was … always will be.
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