The Future Of The NFL – Conflicting Data

Sometimes you receive conflicting data; and in such circumstances, you need to avoid leaping to a conclusion that you prefer to be the case because some of that data point in that direction.  In the early days of 2018, the “future of football” as the “dominant sports focus” in the US is the subject of much scrutiny.  Lots of different people have totally opposing views on what will happen to football as a sport – and the dominance of the NFL very specifically – in the coming decades.  For those who believe that football has an ominous future, consider:

  1. Nielson reports that NFL TV ratings were down 9.7% over the course of the 2017 regular season.  That translates to an average of 1.6 million fewer people watching a typical NFL game this year as opposed to 2016.
  2. This drop comes on the heels of an 8% drop in ratings/viewership in 2016 that was “explained away” by extraneous factors such as Presidential debates; this year, the “issue du jour” was the National Anthem Protest.
  3. Undeniably, lots of people are “cutting the cord” and that means fewer people can have access to all the games.
  4. Fewer kids are playing youth football (from “ankle-biters” through high school) nationally.  Some estimates say the drop from 2016 to 2017 is approaching 20%.  The interpretation here is that fewer young players will eventually result in fewer adult fans who will passionately follow the games.

If you do not like football for any reason or if you feel some compulsion to be a Cassandra on its future, you can look at any or all of those data and use it to lead yourself to the point where you believe the NFL is about to implode.  And – hold your breath here – you may be correct!   Then again, you may be dead wrong because there are conflicting data and other ways to interpret the data cited above.

Let me start with #4 above.  I have no reason to doubt that fewer kids are playing football now than in recent years and that concern by parents over things like CTE and player safety are significant contributors to the decline.  I resonate with those injury concerns because I held those concerns as a parent myself.

  • When #1 son was about 8 years old, he wanted to be a football player.  I would not allow him to play youth football; I was not so concerned about CTE; I was worried about permanent injuries to his joints which had not completely formed at that age.  I told him he could play once he got to 9th grade and not before.  My adamancy here was a bone of contention between me and my son for years.
  • My son now has a son of his own (age 10) and my grandson has not been part of any football activities.  Moreover, my son now holds the position that HIS son will never play football at any time until my grandson is of an age to make decisions independent of his parents.  Where you stand on any issue depends on where you are sitting at the moment…

The issue of the future of football, however, is not linearly linked to youth participation.  My grandson LOVES to watch televised NFL games and he follows the teams and the players league-wide as only an enthusiastic 10-year old fan will.  Projecting to the future, this non-participant in youth football will be a future consumer of televised NFL games.  I do not want to make future projections based on only one kid who happens to be related to me, so let me consider the linkage of “participation” with “fandom” and “viewership” through a different lens.

For years – even multiple decades – people have been telling me that the significant increases in youth participation in soccer in the US will make professional soccer in the US explode.  Indeed, more kids play soccer now than ever before.  More telling is the fact that the number of girls playing youth soccer has increased almost 30-fold over the past 20 years.  And none of that has translated into a fanbase for soccer – men’s or women’s – that is anything more than a rounding error when estimating the NFL fanbase.  I believe there is only a tenuous linkage between “playing a sport as a kid” and “being a fan of the sport as an adult”.

Now let me point out some data that will be refreshing to those who think football is omnipotent and that it will be the “the king of US sporting world” forever and ever.

  • While ratings on TV shows may be down, actual viewership may be up.  TV ratings are just that; they are measures of how many folks are watching games on the telecasts by the networks.  Some people now watch NFL Red Zone instead of individual games; those numbers are not captured.  [Aside:  I happen to HATE NFL Red Zone; I will watch it if my only option is to watch an infomercial for acne medicine, but that’s it.]  Similarly, the number of people who tune into NFL Network to get updates on all the Sunday games as they are in progress are not counted here.
  • Notwithstanding the ratings decrease, Nielsen ratings showed that 20 of the top 30 TV shows in 2017 were football games.  For all the networks that telecast games (CBS, ESPN, FOX and NBC), NFL football games were the highest rated programs on each network all year long.
  • Sunday Night Football (NBC) was the highest rated prime time TV program in 2017 for the 7th year in a row.  By the way, the second highest rated prime time TV program last year was Thursday Night Football (CBS).
  • According to, advertising revenues paid to the networks for NFL games through Week 15 of the regular season was up 16% to $3.7B.  That figure does not include added revenues to NFL Network and added revenues to the NFL from the “digital/mobile transmission sector”.  As of now, the league and its TV partners are all “getting fat”.

I have been on Planet Earth long enough – and I am sufficiently realistic – to recognize that nothing is permanent and times change.  When I was a kid, the plum assignments for sports writers in newspapers were boxing, horse racing and baseball.  Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a newspaper that has a boxing writer or a horse racing writer of any kind.  In fact, my local paper – The Washington Post – does not even publish the entries or the results of the local tracks except for Preakness Weekend at Pimlico.

When I was a kid, baseball dominated pro football and overshadowed college football in most of the country.  Not intending any disrespect to MLB at all, but that is simply no longer the case.  I make these observations to note that the same thing might happen to football and the NFL 50 years from now.  I have no crystal ball; I am not Cassandra nor am I Pollyanna.

What I think is important for all of us to avoid is coming to a conclusion about the future/fate of the NFL and football as an activity and then finding data to support our previously drawn conclusion while ignoring all other data.  Now that I mention it, maybe that is a good behavior model for everyone to emulate as they evaluate more important things than the future of football in our world – – like maybe social reforms and political candidates and “family values”.

Just saying …

Finally, when you think about “fandom” in its most rabid forms, consider this comment from Greg Cote in the Miami Herald last weekend:

“USA Today speculated the Dolphins as a possible landing spot for Tom Brady should the Patriots dynasty come apart. Hmm. Is wishing and hoping for a QB who’ll be 41 next season not its own form of sadness?”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



3 thoughts on “The Future Of The NFL – Conflicting Data”

  1. I agree with you completely about NFL fans. I bet 99% or more of the current fans never played a down of organised football.

    1. Doug:

      Unless you count the “traditional Thanksgiving Day family two-hand-touch” games that occur in great numbers. Then again, you did say “organized”…

      1. I think it takes more than a cooler of beer and a grill with a couple dozen burgers to count as organised. Maybe the addition of potato salad tips the scales. That means there are some non-participating wives in charge.

Comments are closed.