Richard Sherman expresses frustration with the referees in a sight all too common to NFL fans. Photo by USA Today Sports Images.
By Connor Van Ligten
With ratings down, touchdown celebrations penalized, and subjects such as Colin Kaepernick’s protests and domestic violence disputes dominating the headlines instead of the games themselves, it seems that America’s national pastime is in trouble. Factors inside and outside the league have resulted in the decline of the NFL, earning it the nickname “No Fun League”.
According to Michael Mulvihill, executive VP of research at Fox Sports, Sunday Night Football viewership through Week 7 is down 19% from last year, and Monday Night Football has lost almost a quarter of its viewership.
It certainly doesn’t help that non-regional primetime games on Thursday and Monday frequently include mediocre teams, or skewed matchups. In fact, as of October 28th, the recent Thursday night game featuring the Titans and the Jaguars was rated as the fifth worst primetime matchup (using ELO ratings) of all time.
Frustration with referees has only worsened, as frequent botched calls and the obsession with flagging celebrations cause many to scratch their heads. According to SB Nation, a whooping 13 taunting penalties were called in the first four weeks of the 2016 season. To put this in perspective, 22 taunting penalties were called in the entirety of the 2015 season.
According to sportingcharts.com, average penalties per game has increased each year since 2013. In fact, last weekend, the Oakland Raiders set an NFL penalty record for getting flagged 23 times in their game against the Buccaneers. Regardless of whether the penalties are deserved or not, frequent penalties can seriously hamper the experience as a spectator, interrupting the action frequently.
Real life has also gotten in the way of our pastime. According to a Seton Hall sports poll, in which 841 respondents were given seven potential factors for decreased ratings and asked which ones they believed were a significant factor (respondents could choose multiple options), 56% of respondents believe NFL ratings are down due to Kaepernick’s protests, while 50% also believe the election played a factor into it.
What would help “save” the NFL from its downward spiral? It’s not an easy fix, but there are some sources for improvement that are easy to see. One way the NFL could improve is to stop being stubborn and expand their distribution.
The ability to stream more games online, which is slowly being incorporated in other sports, would give fans more opportunities to watch games. By severing their ties with cable networks and moving towards streaming, the NFL would get more exposure, and hopefully ratings as well.
In addition, the NFL needs to improve its shaky relationship with the players. In a recent article for The Players Tribune, Richard Sherman touches on some of the problems players have with the league. “The real problem with the NFL is the lack of a system of checks and balances. The commissioner simply has too much power”, Sherman said. “The NFL is enforcing a policy against...fun. It’s something I know a lot of players are frustrated with, and it appears that fans may be as well,” he said.
The NFL needs to reevaluate the way it interacts with the public and with players, in hopes of repairing their image. More transparency and consistency needs to be established with league policy, so that league rulings and decision making starts to become a bit less confusing and a bit more reasonable.
A lot of things need to change, because at the rate the NFL is going, although the league will still pull in millions each year, it’ll lose its spot as America’s national pastime it spent decades working toward.