This year’s Thanksgiving games featured more ugly football than good football. To make it to the gripping primetime finish in Green Bay, fans first had to sit through an early-afternoon blowout in Detroit and a Panthers–Cowboys game dominated by mistakes and overshadowed by a potentially season-ending injury to star quarterback Tony Romo. And all that action was coming off a Week 11 slate that featured more officiating blunders and concussion protocol breakdowns. These are only the most recent popular grievances amid a season filled with bad teams, crippling injuries and the usual stream of disconcerting off-field storylines.
With barrels aimed at the NFL from many different directions, what is the single biggest threat to the league’s future right now? Our writers and editors make the case for their answers in this week’s roundtable.
The quality of product, which folds in a number of different issues. The NFL likely hears the criticism over things like officiating and player safety and its discipline system, but there are only so many things they can or would do to fix those problems.
What could get more of the league’s attention is a dip in TV ratings. It hasn’t happened yet, and odds are it won’t happen soon, but I wonder how much fans are willing to put up with. Take Monday’s game between the Bills and Patriots. The third quarter lasted about an hour; the final play (controversial in itself) didn’t occur until after midnight ET; there were the usual extended commercial breaks and myriad stoppages for reviews and referee conferences.
That was a big game between two rivals, so viewers stuck it out. Will they continue to do so for less important games—and there are a ton of mediocre teams—or if this continues to occur on a regular basis?
The NFL will never be able to “fix” its officiating flaws to the perfection that the public seemingly demands, and as long as football remains a collision sport, the concussion/brain injury and player safety issue will continue to be an inherent risk that comes with the game. But there is a pervading threat the NFL can be more cognizant of and more aggressive in countering, even if it’s a fight that has to be fought on multiple fronts.
Not to go too vague and big-picture here, but the NFL’s thirst for more, more, more is the biggest danger the league faces as it stares into its gilded-edged future. In other words, Mark Cuban might be right. The only thing that can ultimately damage the NFL is if the league’s greed knows no bounds. Cuban’s “pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered” words of warning were scoffed at by many early last year, because with them came a prediction of NFL “implosion” within 10 years—an unlikely scenario. But there was some truth in those headlines. There is a point of oversaturation that can be reached by even the almighty NFL, or any league that is too intent on ever-escalating profits, higher TV ratings, more global reach and utter dominance in terms of ruling the landscape of sports. More games, on more nights, with more franchises in more countries may not be the guaranteed winner the NFL is counting on. Too much of a good thing really is a mistake as old as time itself. And history shows its lessons are never fully learned.
While there are more serious issues facing the NFL, the one most susceptible to making a dent in the NFL’s platinum-encrusted ratings armor is fairly simple: The crop of compelling quarterbacks is fading fast. We’ve been spoiled for two decades now. From Steve Young to Brett Favre to Peyton Manning to Aaron Rodgers and of course, Tom Brady, there has been no shortage of captivating future Hall of Famers that are must-see TV on a weekly basis.
But that’s changing. And fast. Manning’s just about done. Brees may have some big games left, but his physical gifts have dwindled. Tom Brady may play until he’s 85, but it’s more probable than not that he’ll start to slow down in the next two or three years. Rodgers may throw the best football in NFL history, but his limitations have been exposed this season. Still, Rodgers will give us several more years of jaw-dropping back-shoulder throws. Cam Newton seems to only be on an upward trajectory, although future Hall of Famer seems a stretch at this point. Andrew Luck still has the best shot at a Peyton-esque career. Tony Romo can be fascinating. But after that is a whole lot of boring and even more question marks.
Some of the youngest guys like Derek Carr, Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston all have the potential to be great, but it’s still potential. Truthfully, I think young wide receivers are going to outshine quarterbacks on a regular basis, and soon. That won’t ultimately be good for ratings.
The biggest threat to the NFL is young fans losing interest like they have in baseball. Last year an ESPN poll reported MLS was just as popular as baseball in the 12–17 age range. The NFL is in danger of heading down the same path and losing young fans to other sports. A reduction in youth participation because of health concerns could be a major factor. But that’s not the only reason kids could go elsewhere.
The country’s demographics are changing, and the long-standing non-Hispanic white majority is disappearing. Can the NFL broaden its appeal to a wide range of ethnic groups? The sport’s Hispanic fan base is reportedly growing and they could have a game in Mexico next season, but the league has work to do in this area. The NFL would be wise to learn from baseball’s shortcomings: Keep the game fast-paced and entertaining. Be careful not to legislate fun out of the game. Engage digitally wherever possible, especially in fantasy football. If not, we’re only going to see more Levitra and AARP commercials on Sunday as the audience ages. The NFL can’t be complacent and bask in their ratings glory because the sports world is always changing.
I don't really think there is a real threat. Fans can complain about the officiating, the decline in the on-field product due to lack of practice time, sexual violence cases, etc, all they want, but they’ll still keep coming back because they like the violence of the game, and it’s only a once-a-week (for their favorite team) time commitment. Maybe an on-field death might drive some people away, but I doubt it would be enough to make an impact. Possibly, decades down the line, we could see a dwindling talent pool due to schools/youth leagues opting out of football because of rising insurance, but there would still be more than enough that would sign waivers. Football’s not going anywhere. People love their football no matter how it’s dressed up or down.