Sports Football

Current NFL product failing to engage steady viewership

By Torben Rolfsen

In this Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 file photo, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team's NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, in San Diego. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell disagrees with Kaepernick's choice to kneel during the national anthem, but recognizes the quarterback's right to protest. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

In this Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016 file photo, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team's NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, in San Diego. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell disagrees with Kaepernick's choice to kneel during the national anthem, but recognizes the quarterback's right to protest. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

What is wrong with the NFL?

That is what everyone is asking at the halfway point of the 2016 season, with the erstwhile king of American sports mired in a 12 per cent ratings slide amid a morass of boring primetime games.

From multiple 6:30 a.m. Pacific Time London kickoffs, to crackdowns on celebrations and fun, to bizarre officiating and video reviews pushing some games towards four hours, the league seems determined to turn off the fan at every possible junction.

So what’s affecting viewer numbers?

Let’s examine some of the core explanations, from somewhat likely to most pertinent.

A hot topic du jour and reason that comes up in polling is national anthem protests.

Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for The Star Spangled Banner as a symbolic protest against police brutality of African-Americans created a ripple effect throughout sports that now sees people kneeling for the anthem, locking arms in solidarity, or even (gasp!) holding hands.

But let’s face it: these acts are relatively isolated, quite benign, and take place for two minutes before the game even starts.

Do they really upset out-of-market football fans around the country? No one watches 49ers games since Jim Harbaugh left anyway.

(At this point, it looks like Kaepernick is also protesting the barber profession. At least he is in no danger of a concussion.)

The current NFL product deserves some of the blame.

A lack of great matchups and stars, brought on by a combination of suspensions (Tom Brady), injuries (Tony Romo), and retirement (Peyton Manning) had the league working through a quarterback shortage while waiting for the next generation to take centre stage.

Endless penalties and inconsistent officiating draw games out and disillusion fans.

The No-Fun League’s increasingly ridiculous crackdown on celebrations and any displays of fun and emotion also leave viewers – especially younger ones – with a sour taste.

The Seahawks' Earl Thomas got penalized for hugging a ref against the Saints Sunday. Will they fine him? It wouldn’t be the first time a NFL player paid to embrace someone.

The autumn runup to the presidential election has drained viewers away to cable news channels – and not just on the two debate nights.

All of the above have mixed with another reason to form a lethal cocktail: screen competition, cord-cutting and mobile have altered the landscape.

A generation weaned on two-minute web clips may not be enthralled by three to four hour NFL marathons.

Since 2010, the time people under-24 have spent watching TV is down more than 40 per cent.

Solutions? Stop with silly celebration penalties and fines. These are grown men and the face of your sport. Lighten up and embrace entertainment.

Drop Thursday night football. Your product is over-saturated. Make it a special event again. (College football, still mostly restricted to Saturdays, is maintaining steady ratings this fall.)

Starting in 2017, Nielsen’s Total Audience Measurement system will factor in Twitter, Verizon and other platforms to better track viewing numbers.

Improve the product and then take stock – you might be surprised what happens when you give the people what they want.