Bartlett: The Decline of the NFL

The narrative around football has weakened the sport’s future prospects.

by Nicholas Bartlett | 1/25/18 12:15am

The National Football League is struggling and seems unable to get out of its own way. From controversies over national anthem protests to concussion research, recent public opinion of football has been far from stellar. The drop in ratings echoes this sentiment. However, one of the greatest impediments to the success of the NFL lies not in external factors, but within the very broadcast booths and media outlets which are supposed to foment enthusiasm for the sport. In their constant haste to render the game exciting through their commentary or discussions of the latest strategies or roster moves made by teams, these individuals have unwittingly managed to oversaturate the market with content. They have created an environment that feeds off of nostalgia, precipitating a sense of apathy that can explain many of the league’s recent quagmires.

Oversaturation is the more visible of the two paradigms, given that it is very easily verified. A mere Google search of “NFL” will return hundreds of thousands of results — all from the last few days. From the front page of CNN to the trending section of YouTube to blogs dedicated specifically to one team or another, it can be difficult to avoid reading, hearing or seeing anything related to football. This apparent ubiquity, though, is ultimately injurious to the NFL. The relative ease of access to football information was, at one time, fascinating to fans, but the culmination of time and overexposure has tempered this excitement. Instead, that which was once a commodity — the once Sunday-exclusive phenomenon — is now granted the status of normal and unimpressive. Such is a death knell for a spectator sport which thrives upon an identity of physical violence that supposedly distinguishes it from its contemporaries. Banality, then, has rendered much of football’s implicit “charm” moot, since that which once engendered intrigue due to rarity is now met with apathy due to its prevalence. Football, so-called “America’s game,” made the egregious error of increasing supply in the face of stagnating demand. The resulting desensitization has made it more difficult for the NFL to attract new fans (the likes of whom are more likely to flock to the “next big thing”) and turned away casual consumers on the periphery of the fandom. In this sense, football is no longer the commodity it once was, and it has suffered as a result.

The nostalgic ambience that permeates the league is a different issue altogether — a subtler one. As opposed to being present within the sheer quantity of production, this issue arises from seemingly innocuous statements. Among the most heinous offenders is the claim that “[Young Player] is the next [Great Player of Years Past].” On a superficial level, such an approach is understandable; comparing a relatively new talent to one who is established within the lore of the league is a good way to explain and contextualize a player’s talents for the casual audience. The intent is to add a sense of flair or excitement to the league by insinuating that the next great football player has arrived — a player the audience should watch. Unfortunately, there is a great disparity between the intended effect of the writer or announcer and the impact of the innumerable quantity of such statements in the press. Rather than catalyze greater future intrigue in the NFL, the constant comparison to the spectacular players that came before ultimately subverts the notion that football is as incredible — and worth the financial and temporal investment — as in years past. That is, in repeatedly looking to the past and searching for a player that is as great as his predecessors, the NFL inadvertently supports the belief that football is not as entertaining now as it was a few decades ago. This narrative, while in many ways erroneous, only further contributes to the league’s decline. When we perpetually deify the past as if it were greater than the present, it becomes harder to incite investment into the modern reality of the game of football.

The combination of these two factors has done an irreparable amount of harm to the NFL’s viewership, simultaneously providing the populace with exorbitant exposure and gratuitous nostalgia. Both effectively diminish the fervor for American football in the present and reinforce that the NFL is slowly trending toward a place as an antiquated staple of American sports culture — a fall akin to that of baseball. And unfortunately for the league, no realistic panaceas exist for these qualms. Media coverage of the NFL will not dwindle until the sport’s popularity is no longer large enough to justify such treatment — but by then it will be too late. And it is near-impossible to prevent juxtapositions of any kind when the human species thrives on comparison. In a way, the NFL is fighting against facets of human nature, and only time will tell if it can abate the damages and weather the storm or if football will fall into a state of mediocrity.