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Mighty NFL grapples with tumbling TV ratings

Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.

Down goes the NFL: TV ratings of NFL games are down by 11 percent. This puts the colossus league in crisis mode because nothing affects the NFL more than TV ratings.

When ratings are up, greed and arrogance reign. When ratings are down, the league adopts a humbler tone.

Since it is foreign to billionaire owners to be humble, the search to reverse the ratings trend will consume the NFL for the foreseeable future.

What’s behind the ratings drop? Here is our take on some common themes.

1. Presidential debates: Two of the debates directly opposed NFL games in prime time and Donald Trump is TV gold. But these tawdry spectacles should have actually steered viewers to NFL games, not away from them.

2. Injury epidemic: The proliferation of fantasy leagues and games has altered the reasons for watching NFL games. More fans are following individual players and less have loyalties to teams. When star players miss games – especially star offensive players – fan interest in their games decrease. Also, injuries to starters bring more backups into prominent positions and diminish the product.

3. Incompetent officiating: Blatantly missed calls are a huge turnoff. When line judge Sarah Thomas blew the call on the Duke Johnson fumble recovery in the Browns’ loss to Washington, the league seemed more interested in protecting her than in making the correct call. But at least that call didn’t determine the outcome. The non-call on obvious pass interference by Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman against Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones last week prevented a fantastic finish. It was an outrageous and suspicious swallowing of the whistle with a game on the line.

4. No-fun celebration penalties: I’m divided on this issue. I enjoy a good, tasteful touchdown celebration. Chad Johnson made it an art form and was one of the league’s most popular players in his heyday because of them. His fake marriage proposal to an unsuspecting cheerleader was hilarious. But a few bad apples spoiled it for everyone and the NFL targeted celebrations in bad taste. Shame on those players who simulated shooting guns or making X-rated body moves. Now, merely using the football as a prop draws a flag. Terrelle Pryor’s “LeBron chalk-toss” routine would have been allowed if he had simply placed the football on the ground.

5. Elimination of kickoff returns: One of the sport’s most exciting plays was deemed one of the most dangerous plays. In the name of player safety, rules changes turned exciting kickoffs into boring touchbacks and opportunities for more advertising time outs.

6. Heightened violence: Despite efforts to make the game safer, violent collisions are still prevalent. They raise the specter of serious, life-changing injuries on any play. The Antonio Andrews blind-side hit on Jordan Poyer resulted in a lacerated kidney that ended Poyer’s season. It was a cheap shot and Andrews drew a foul. Andrews then drew criticism for posting a video of the hit on his Instagram account.

7. National Anthem demonstrations: San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick declined to stand for the National Anthem to protest racial oppression. After national outrage from military and law enforcement officials, he amended his protest by kneeling during the Anthem. Dozens of players have since joined him. As a result, Kaepernick was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The movement seemingly has polarized fans and viewers and caused many to turn the channel.

8. Over-saturation: The expansion of a Thursday night schedule – and the requirement that every team have at least one prime-time game per season – has severely diluted the NFL product. When the NFL created Sunday night football for NBC, it catered its schedule to make Sunday night the new Monday night. That resulted in poorer matchups on Monday night and Thursday night. Bad matchups on Sunday afternoons could be overlooked. But bad matchups in prime time are magnified as unwatchable exhibitions of mediocre football.

9. Preseason hangover: Commissioner Roger Goodell has rather consistently said the NFL preseason product is lame. Yet owners are allowed to charge full price for an inferior product. The stench of the preseason now seems to linger longer into the regular season. If the first weeks of the real season are bad, it’s hard for a team, or market, to overcome that.

10. Selective heavy-handedness: Goodell’s two-year crusade to punish Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with a four-game suspension for allegedly under-inflating footballs brought more PR harm to a commissioner seen as a hanging judge. At the same time, the league looked the other way from a serious domestic violence offender such as Giants kicker Josh Brown, who was suspended merely one game after admitting to multiple acts of violence against his now ex-wife.