Business of Football: Impact of Super Bowl Ratings Drop, Russell Wilson, JJ Watt

A trip through the NFL one week into the offseason, including why the Super Bowl ratings drop doesn’t really matter, what it means when Russell Wilson speaks out, why Watt was handled differently than Watson and more.
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Before moving to the offseason, kudos to the NFL and NFLPA for achieving their stated goal of completing the season. As readers of this space know, I repeatedly asked, as the virus raged with no vaccine in sight: “Are they really doing this?” And they were, staging games lacking NFL-ready receivers (Browns), NFL-ready quarterbacks (Broncos) and even playing a game with 23 players on the Covid list (Ravens). But they made it through.

The NFL was not going to shut down a $15 billion business; they were going to mitigate the COVID risk the best they could, and they did an admirable job. Yet my overriding concern remains: players developing long-term complications. I truly hope that none of the players who contracted the virus have lasting respiratory or other issues; that would put a lasting stain on the decision to “play through” COVID in 2020.

Now, to the NFL’s pinnacle game, the last one we will see for six months…


RATINGS STILL SUPER

Some point to the Super Bowl viewership decline—“only” 92 million people watched—as evidence of the NFL loosening its grip as, by far, the most popular sport in the country. To those I say: Good luck with that.

The Super Bowl’s lost viewership during the pandemic is far less than the lost viewership of other sports and their pinnacle programming this year, as noted here:

Event Decline in Viewership
Super Bowl 9%
World Series 30%
NBA Finals 49%
NHL Finals 61%

From this perspective, the Super Bowl’s decline by only 9% illustrates the immense popularity of the sport.

More importantly, does any of it matter? Will any network use this as some kind of leverage in their upcoming negotiations with the NFL? Of course not.

The new media deals, as I have been saying, will be massive. There will be the traditional network suitors—NBC, CBS, Fox, ABC/ESPN—and streaming suitors such as Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, etc. There is no more powerful programming for mass viewership than NFL programming; both the league and the networks know it. A slight Super Bowl ratings dip, especially in this environment, will have zero effect on that.


SUPER TEAM, MORE THAN SUPER PLAYER

The Super Bowl itself brings me to my pet peeve about the adoration of individual players in a team sport. Mind you, I do not mean any lack of respect for Tom Brady. As someone (much) older than him, I appreciate and share his mindset towards health and fitness. My problem is not about Brady; it is about the disproportionate attention and adulation thrown his way compared to his team. Football is the ultimate team sport; every play is a web of interdependent actions counting on teammates. This is not tennis; this is not golf; this is not even basketball.

The most impressive unit in the Super Bowl was clearly the Bucs defense. Brady was the MVP—of course he was—but he was not part of the best unit on the field. And as to the postseason narrative that Brady “beat” Brees, Rodgers and Mahomes in succession? Well, he was never on the field during the game with any of them. Again, this is no slight to Brady, only a nod to what we love about football: the ultimate team sport.


WILSON WITH BRADY ENVY

Speaking of Brady, my sense is that his success has drawn the attention of one of the least outspoken superstar athletes of our time.

Throughout his career, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson has only spoken publicly in bland and unrevealing platitudes. Until now. Wilson has appeared in media lately suggesting 1) He should have a say in personnel decisions with the Seahawks, and 2) the idea that he could be traded is, well, “a question for the Seahawks” (who have not commented but are reported to be upset with his comments). Although Wilson’s position does not seem to be of the “I want out!” nature attributed to Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz (and, some have even suggested, Aaron Rodgers), they do represent a stark departure from Wilson’s usual positivity and his Pete Carroll-like sanguine “Go Hawks!” signature line.

Wilson, like all of us, watched the Super Bowl and saw Brady’s weapons, including Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, etc. Wilson would never denigrate his teammates in Seattle, but I sense that his interest in more of a personnel role is “Brady envy.”

This more revealing Wilson seems more introspective and wanting more from his status with the team. It is a stark change from the vanilla Wilson we have always seen.


WATT’S UP

Fridays’ news that J.J. Watt asked for—and was granted—his release from the Texans makes sense in the same way the mutual parting of Matthew Stafford and the Lions did, albeit without a trade.

Watt and Stafford had served as the faces of their franchises through multiple coaches, general managers, losing and dysfunction. Both came to management and said, in effect: We’ve had a nice run; you guys are starting fresh with a new coach and a new general manager; let’s move on. And management obliged.

I don’t know where Watt will sign next (sorry Packer fans, no inside intel here) but I do believe he and his agents knew the key suitors before last week. No smart agent—and Watt has smart agents—lets his client voluntarily leave one team without having a good idea of the next one (as for tampering, good luck proving that). When Watt signs, and it may be by the time you read this, know that his new team did not suddenly appear last Friday.

As for some comparing Watt’s situation with the Texans with that of Deshaun Watson: please. Watt signed his contract in 2015; Watson signed his contract in September. Watt has no dead money and his vanishing $17.5 million salary will be pure savings to the Texans cash and cap; Watson has tens of millions in potential dead money. Watt is descending; Watson is ascending. Letting Watt go may have been a way to save face from a release or trade for a mid-round draft pick; trading Watson, no matter his discontent, would debilitate the franchise. The Texans may be dysfunctional, but they are not stupid.

The business of football always wins.