The decline at the National Football League (NFL) is now plain to see. At the start of the season, the league could make the case that its decline was not as fast as the decline in U.S. television in general. It seemed possible that some of the decline at the start of the season was temporary. Now with the season winding down, it is clear that this is an ongoing trend outside of the league’s control and bigger than just the decline in television. Here are three news headlines to tell you about the downward trend that has only accelerated since the 2017 season started:
The violence that was on display here is not unique, it’s the kind of thing that seemingly happens on a weekly basis in the NFL.
. . . last night’s MNF [television audience] dipped 2% from the previous season low of the October 16 matchup . . .
Thousands of fans are trying to resell their tickets . . . for as little as $29. . . . Television ratings are down league-wide and empty seats can be seen at many games.
I couldn’t list all the social trends that work against the NFL, but here are a few. The sport is as brutally time-consuming as it is brutally violent. The two largest advertiser categories, beer and pickup trucks, are in long-term decline. The nature of the game encourages fans to have favorite players, yet that means for every player incapacitated there are thousands of fans disillusioned. The science of brain injuries is becoming more precise every year, so that it is now clear to fans that NFL play ruins the lives of a significant fraction of players. The league’s core fans are old men, dying one by one from the diseases of old age.
The core television audience is also old, and this is one of the reasons that television is in decline. Television is so effective at shaping culture that an inevitable cultural split is developing between the television generations, born roughly between 1940 and 1975, and the Internet generations born since 1975. The NFL is just one cultural institution now forced to grapple with this split. The NFL is so financially dependent on television that, for better or worse, it must throw in its lot with that side of the cultural split, but it must find a way to remain relevant or it will fade away as television fads away.