Sunday swoon? Where people miss the point on NFL ratings

If one was looking to dispel the rumors of the NFL's demise, a good place to start would've been downtown Minneapolis the day before the Super Bowl, where thousands of fans slogged through a confetti-like churn of snow so they could take selfies next to football-themed ice sculptures and gawk at large humans who might or might not have been football players ("That Von Miller?" one man asked, loudly, about two different people, neither of whom was Miller). While an unscientific survey of the knit caps floating through the crowd found that most belonged to Vikings, Eagles and Patriots supporters, many of the event's visitors had come simply because they were fans of the NFL -- not a team or a city, but the product itself. The NFL is a proper noun, but it's also a common one, as universal a hobby in America as jogging or reading (and let's face it: it's probably more popular than reading). The league's most dominant trait is its own dominance.

Until recently, that is. After falling 8 percent in 2016, the NFL's ratings plunged another 9.7 percent during the regular season in 2017, then continued dropping in the playoffs, taking double-digit nosedives until the championship round. On Sunday, the football gods gifted the NFL with a perfect Super Bowl, a nail-biter between two teams from major markets, yet ratings still fell 7 percent to 103.4 million (5 percent if you count official streaming services). It's worth noting that the gap between the NFL and every other network show actually widened this year, which is why Fox Sports just paid $3.3 billion for five years of "Thursday Night Football," a sizable premium over the previous deal. But because the league has, until recently, been immune to the ratings curse afflicting the rest of media, its newfound struggles have invited endless handwringing.

Every fan I met at the Super Bowl was aware of the NFL's ratings decline. "I've heard a couple of different theories," said Kurt, a 32-year-old pharmacist who lives in Minneapolis. Kurt and his friend, Taylor, were standing next to a line of people waiting to jump into a bin of foam pellets, making diving catches in front of a camera. Both men were carrying bottles of Budweiser and paper Super Bowl 52 helmets. "My father-in-law believes a lot of it has to do with the kneeling for the national anthem," he said.

Taylor, 29, said he thinks people are busier now than they were when he was growing up. "There's so much stuff going on -- so many things that you can watch on a Sunday."

Kurt, who was wearing an Aaron Rodgers jersey, added that, while he still paid attention to his hometown Packers, his attention slipped a bit after the star quarterback broke his collarbone in Week 6. "If I could watch, great, but if not, I wasn't drawn to the game," he said.

I asked them if they still consider themselves football fans, and they nodded briskly. "Love the NFL," Taylor said.

"Love the NFL," Kurt said.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the NFL's ratings problem is that so many people care about it. Television ratings have been free-falling for a while (more on that later), and the NFL's popularity has waned before, but this current downturn has received outsized attention. Some of the interest stems from broader questions about the viability of the sport and fans' investment in the quality of play (a drop-off in ratings for, say, "The Voice," probably wouldn't spur heated debate about the singers' talent). But most of the fascination can be tied to two names: Colin Kaepernick and Donald Trump.

The NFL's ratings began their current descent in 2016, around the time that Kaepernick -- then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers -- first knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequity in policing. When ratings continued to tumble in 2017 as other players joined his protest, some saw the correlation and declared causation, an argument that was calcified when Trump began attacking the league (in late September, the president tweeted that NFL ratings were "way down," adding, baselessly, that people were tuning in only at the beginning of games to see if "our country will be disrespected"). As the season progressed and coverage of the protests dwindled, Trump's focus moved elsewhere, but he still tweaked the players, releasing a statement before the Super Bowl that stressed the importance of standing for the anthem. Other politicians have followed suit. Republican candidates in states such as South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee have publicly hammered the NFL, indicating that they believe the stance resonates with their base.

It's undeniable that the protests, which were never intended to antagonize the military, have become a wedge issue, exposing racial and political fault lines that have long divided Americans with a shared affinity for the NFL. But it's far less clear that they've actually driven huge numbers of people away from the sport. Most of the evidence tying the decline in the league's popularity to politics is anecdotal: stories about relatives and friends boycotting the games, post-apocalyptic-looking pictures of half-full stadiums (if you remove home games for the new-to-L.A. Rams and Chargers from the picture, direct ticket purchases this season were basically flat) and polls indicating that people were upset about the protests and less interested in the NFL this year.

According to a Gallup Poll survey, the percent of Americans who call the NFL their favorite sport to watch peaked at 43 percent in 2007, two years before the sport's concussion problem bloomed into a full-blown crisis, four years before Colin Kaepernick was drafted and seven years before the league's bungling of several domestic violence cases became a national news story.

"The trouble with self-reported surveys is people will say whatever they want," said Anthony Crupi, an AdAge reporter who covers the television industry.

Trying to figure out what's ailing the NFL is a little like using the internet to self-diagnose a throbbing headache: You can find dozens of reasons that'll induce varying degrees of panic (BRAIN TUMOR?), all supported by varying degrees of evidence. For example: You could point out that the same Gallup Poll that shows the percentage of people who call football their favorite sport has declined (it's at 37 percent now, still much higher than for any other sport) also reveals that the contingent with no favorite sport at all has risen seven points since the beginning of the decade. You could argue that the NFL's product was subpar this season, citing the time spent debating the catch rule (10,000 hours feels about right) or, as Crupi highlighted, the numbing 12.9-point differential in "Sunday Night Football." You could look at the Nielsen data behind the ratings decline, and you'd find that, while viewership among older white men and women fell at an 8 percent clip, the decline among young black men and women was far more dramatic, dropping, respectively, 16 and 20 percent. White fans made up the majority of lost viewers because white fans make up the majority of people who watch the NFL, but the share of non-white fans walking away from the sport more than tripled this year.

Could it be because the demographic watches less traditional television? Or did they forsake the league because they believed owners mistreated Kaepernick? It's a difficult question and one that has received scant attention compared to the mountain of commentary devoted to fans and politicians who oppose the protests.

Mike Mulvihill, the executive vice president of research, league operations and strategy at Fox Sports, offers two reasons for the decline. One is specific to this season. As has been repeated ad infinitum, an unusually large number of stars were sidelined by injury -- or, in the case of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, suspension -- this year. The absence of Elliott, Rodgers and Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. crippled the performance of three of the NFL's most popular teams, Mulvihill said. "When you lose the most popular brands, the light viewers and casual fans drop out entirely." He points out that Green Bay, Dallas and Pittsburgh -- another massive fan base -- went from participating in seven playoff games last year to just one in 2018 (the Steelers lost in the divisional round).

Mulvihill also pins the drop-off in ratings on the surge in news consumption. While linear, or traditional, television is mostly struggling across the board, cable news viewership is up 67 percent over the past three years, he says. Industry experts expected those programs to lose their allure after the election, but the Trump presidency has been so eventful that ratings have continued to soar, pulling viewership away from network dramas, reality television and, he contends, sports. "We're in a unique moment in history," Mulvihill said. "There's the anthem issue, which I feel is real but relatively minor. Then there's this larger issue of the distraction created by the White House." In other words, the president is winning a battle with the NFL -- just not the one he's waging on Twitter.

While some hard-core NFL aficionados braved single-digit temperatures in downtown Minneapolis, others opted for the climate-controlled, Cinnabon-scented environs of the Mall of America, where dozens of media members set up shop. Fans jockeyed for position outside radio row, a roped-off area where folding tables were jammed together in the manner of a school science fair. Whenever players entered and exited the space, spectators screamed their first names like TMZ photographers, hoping to make incidental eye contact. At one point, Von Miller actually was there.

Across a walkway, in one of the mall's several food courts, a pair of young men sat at a counter and ate hamburgers from Steak Escape, watching the action unfold. P.J. and Melvin, both 21, described themselves as NFL fans. "I usually watch every game -- or I try to," said P.J., a machine operator who lives in Minneapolis.

Melvin, a former high school football player, said he watches games, but his attention wanes. "I'll probably miss the third quarter. That's usually how it goes," he said. "I'm on my phone. I don't usually sit and watch TV."

The NFL's ratings plunge this year synced up almost perfectly with the rest of prime-time network television, which fell 9 percent from the year before. This is a new phenomenon; while other shows have coasted on a terrifying downward slope for some time now, sports, along with other live programs, have mostly resisted the plunge. But the dam has broken. Aside from the NBA, which has a smaller audience but boasts a surfeit of stars and has better navigated social media, other live sports, including baseball, hockey and college football, have lost viewers. Awards shows, which obey similar dynamics, have also flailed: The Oscars started struggling three years ago, and the Grammys' audience just plummeted 24 percent.

A small but not insignificant chunk of NFL fans have jumped ship for Red Zone (the league doesn't publish Red Zone ratings, but it has been estimated that the service draws about a million viewers every Sunday). Others stream games on unauthorized websites. But viewership is falling in a way that suggests the NFL isn't simply being replaced. Nielsen's ratings numbers are based on a formula that considers not only how much football people are watching (which is referred to as "frequency") but also how many people watch any football at all ("reach"). While the former figure is down 13 percent over the past two years, the NFL's audience, or its reach, has shrunk by just 3 percent since 2015. "It all centers around a comparable number of people tuning in less often," Mulvihill said.

For the league, this revelation offers something of an existential reprieve. People still like the NFL! And yet, no one likes anything as much as they used to. Or rather, though we still enjoy television shows and albums and movies, they no longer command our undivided attention. Because so much entertainment is at our fingertips at any given moment, we can tune out during the third quarter of a tedious Patriots-Titans game and fire up Netflix or open Snapchat and Twitter, apps that not only provide an endless stream of content and drama but also surface highlights and memes that can supplant live game play. The league must already convince viewers to watch games that last more than three hours, on multiple days each week; even if they trim the length and frequency of competition, consumption will continue to erode. "Young people have completely disappeared-everybody from 12 to 34 is gone," says Crupi. "And they're not coming back."

Does this mean that ratings will continue to worsen and that the NFL is screwed and that we're all doomed to bunker down inside sensory-deprivation pods while our better-looking avatars float through the matrix? Not exactly. For starters, the league's financial position, at least in the near future, is fine. Football ratings might be declining, but everything is declining, and nothing else sniffs the NFL. The league boasted 37 of the top 50 most-watched programs last year, and Super Bowl LII drew 617 percent more viewers than the top prime-time show, up from 363 percent in 2010. For advertisers, the NFL is still the most appealing option by a landslide. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed ratings monster is king.

Amid the disruption, the league will probably grab more turf and demand more money for it. Traditional metrics will continue to weaken, but new vehicles for engagement will spring up. People who play fantasy football -- which is thriving -- aren't going anywhere. Bettors in Nevada put down a record $158.6 million on the Super Bowl, and legalized gambling will drive more interest in the sport. In the long term, the product will evolve. But in the meantime, as the league's once-inexorable march grinds to a halt, its decline will have a Rashomon Effect. Professional football is the biggest game in town, which means it has the biggest target on its back, and every slumping ratings story offers a fresh hook upon which people can hang their convictions.

The NFL is dead. Long live the NFL.