Ratings seriously are off for NFL games this year and there are lots of theories why. The tumultuous US election is one reason being offered. That was a wilder reality show than the average NFL game. And people love the spontaneity of those reality shows.
But could that be the only reason?
One of the reasons we like sports is that they play out based on rules and we never really know what the outcome will be. That spontaneity sustains our attention.
At the same time as the ratings are sagging, we have seen the intrusion of referees and instant replay to take a lot of the spontaneity out of the games. This has happened in other sports as well as NFL.
The stops in action are aided by a very thick rule book, penalties, replays and challenges. They all take the emotion out of the flow. You could probably add penalties for celebration as well, another emotion deflating rule. What’s competition without a little chest thumping? And what other factor drives greater ratings more than emotion?
There are also more choices of channels and more games in a week thanks to Monday and Thursday TV games. Leagues and teams have also established streaming packages for customers. All of this dilution of the product.
Plus at the beginning of this year there was a sudden lack of stars. The season opened with no Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.
One thing that has helped baseball is the strength of big market teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs. These super powers can carry a lot of rating strength. Such is not the case right now with NFL football. The league also might be accused of being too greedy adding Thursday Night Football and moving mid season games to non-US markets such as London and Mexico City. These may put lots of bums in seats of big stadiums but seem to lack interest for those back in the US, especially when time zones interfere.
The off field antics also harm the image of the game. Concerns about concussions and the after effects of playing football may be discouraging families from getting their kids interested in football. And off field players having domestic violence issues and suspensions due to drug use are also hurting football’s image.
All these distractions are happening in an age of attention deficit. We are watching people at professional sports events sitting in the stands with their smartphones out… or only looking up when there is a need for a replay.
Pricing has also risen steeply. Player salaries and expensive new venues have meant that the cost of tickets reaches well what is affordable for the average citizen. Corporate seats may be filled but that’s not where the mass ratings come from.
Will the NFL recover and regain its ratings? It will depend on what other rule tweaks and stars emerge.