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State of the NFL: Examining the appeared decline of Roger Goodell's league

Commissioner Roger Goodell rightly came under fire during his annual Super Bowl State of the NFL address. What's the true state of the league?

HOUSTON — Roger Goodell held his annual State of the NFL press conference Wednesday, and he upset millions of Boston media members by refusing to punch himself in the face. I was hoping Goodell would scream, “I hate Boston, I think Larry Bird was overrated, and I’m the only person on the planet who prefers Manhattan clam chowder,” but alas, he disappointed me yet again.

Goodell is one of the easiest people in the world to root against. He is a rich white man representing even richer white men. His decision-making is inconsistent and sometimes unfair. He claims to be accessible but really isn’t. People cannot find any reason to feel empathy for him, and let’s face it: we’re not looking real hard.

So when you start to hear that Goodell’s NFL is starting to decline, it’s easy to throw everything onto the fire: this season’s lower TV ratings, the Ray Rice suspension, anthem controversies, Deflategate, concussions, Thursday Night Football.

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I’ve blamed Goodell for quite a few things over the years, but even I was surprised when a reporter asked Goodell, in a roundabout way, if he can help stop President Trump from building a wall along the Mexican border. I mean, it had not even occurred to me to pin that on Goodell.

Goodell’s press conference was moved up to Wednesday this year; usually, it’s later in the week. And in a league where everything happens for a reason that nobody tells you, it was fair to wonder why. Perhaps Goodell did not want his comments on Deflategate to be the last story before the Patriots Super Bowl, or somebody figured it would be smart to have him speak on the same day that football fans are focused on National Signing Day.

But let’s step back from our Goodell-bashing to ask: Is the NFL really declining?

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I’m skeptical. First, we have a tendency to measure things in their immediate context; if NFL TV ratings are down, we view that as a trend, because we are comparing them to NFL ratings the year before. So when NFL ratings dropped by 13 percent for the first two-plus months of the season, it was easy to see this as a sign of decline.

Well, here is some context: the Cubs’ epic World Series Game 7 victory of Cleveland, one of the best baseball games of all-time, had a 25.2 rating. The Falcons’ NFC Championship blowout of the Packers had a 25.0 rating. The NFL is still, by far, the most valuable television property in the country.

A downward trend is still a trend, of course. Goodell acknowledged that the league is closely examining a lot of issues. But there are other factors that don’t create easy headlines but make a lot more sense than “People are sick of the NFL” or “They’re turned off by Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest” or “They don’t trust the commissioner.”

I’ve been watching pro football for my whole life. I never once turned on the TV because I trusted the commissioner.

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Other factors that make more sense:

1. Donald Trump.

I’m not trying to voice political opinions here. Really. So let’s change this to:

1. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

The 2016 election was unprecedented in American history, and let’s face it: as a news story, it still has not ended. If anything, the election (and the president) only generated more interest after Nov. 8. People only have so much time to watch TV or check the Internet. The more they spend on politics, the less they spend on the NFL. There was nothing Roger Goodell could have done about this.

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And this brings us to Kaepernick and his anthem protest. A surprising number of fans will cite this as a reason they are down on the NFL. I don’t buy that people turn off Cowboys-Giants games because they don’t like the 49ers quarterback; that doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense. I think it’s more likely that we live in fraught times, and for some, Kaepernick is a symbol of that. And a lot of fans are more concerned about what will happen to the country than about the NFL.

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2. We are measuring interest the wrong way

For decades now, we have had a simple calculus: The higher the TV rating, the more people care. It was never really that simple. Baseball, for example, has experienced booming popularity even as national TV ratings have declined. Generally, baseball fans love watching their team, especially live, but don’t pay as much attention to other teams as football fans do. Still, TV ratings did tell us a lot about the NFL’s popularity.

Now, though, they mean a little less. Not a lot less. But a little. If you want to follow your favorite team and your fantasy team, you can get real-time stats on your phone without actually watching the game. That doesn’t show up in ratings. But it is still a sign of people’s interest.

3. London

It’s a small factor, maybe, but a real one. As recently as 2012, the NFL played one game in London. In 2013 it was two. In 2014 and 2015: three. This year: four. That means four games were played in the early Sunday morning time slot, which is not a place to build a large TV audience.

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4. Los Angeles

This is a weird one. All we heard for years was that the NFL was foolish not to have a team in L.A after the Rams and Raiders left in 1995. Goodell’s predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, wanted to put a team in L.A. but could never figure out how; this was considered one of his biggest failings as commissioner, and may contribute to why he has not yet been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Last year, of course, the Rams moved from St. Louis to L.A. This was supposed to be a shrewd business move, and in time, maybe it will be. But for 2015, it had two negative effects on TV ratings.

First, it forced Rams games on an L.A. market that had largely forgotten about the Rams. Los Angeles was accustomed to watching the best games every Sunday. In 2015, the city often had to watch a bad team that it didn’t really care about… or not watch at all.

It is hard to know exactly how this affected ratings, but it didn't help. In 2015, the NFL was a less attractive TV property in the second-biggest market in the country than it had been in 2014.

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Meanwhile, St. Louis, the 21st-biggest market, no longer had a team. And unlike Los Angeles, St. Louis did watch its NFL team when it had one.

This does not explain all of the ratings dip, of course. But it is one of several factors. And it will likely get worse next season, when L.A. gets a team it cares about even less, the Chargers—and San Diego, the country’s 28th-biggest market, loses a team it supported.

It’s easy to see a trend (if there is a trend) and pinpoint a single contributing factor. This looks like several factors converging at once. Goodell’s NFL does have some challenges ahead, but this does not look like an irreversible decline in interest to me.

The biggest challenge will be to continue converting interest into dollars—the NFL would much, much rather you watch a game than just follow the stats online. Goodell talked about limiting commercials and packing more action into the games, to make them more appealing. The NFL may also tweak its TV formula—perhaps subtly, by making sure the most attractive games reach the most people even more than they do now. But don’t be fooled by the media loathing or fan complaints. The NFL is still the biggest thing going in American sports, and you have it pretty good if you’re Roger Goodell.