Was apparently the 2015 season:
The NFL has been sacked for a loss. Once considered immune to the audience erosion plaguing the television industry, ratings for the National Football League have tumbled through the first four weeks of the season.
TV networks have bet heavily on sports in general, and the NFL in particular, because of the must-see value of their content. While more viewers are watching commercial-free streaming services like Netflix or recording shows on DVRs and skipping the ads, sports is still primarily watched live, making it valuable to advertisers.
Combined, ESPN, Fox, NBC and CBS are spending an average of $5 billion a year for football rights through 2021. The games not only score big ratings and ad sales, but are crucial platforms to promote other programming.
So far this season, viewership on those networks is down about 10% from last season, according to Nielsen, with steeper declines for prime-time games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday. The drop has caught advertisers and rights holders off guard and left them scrambling to find a cause.
All of the discussions about “a cause” for the NFL’s declining rating are somewhat missing the point. There is no single factor. It is undeniable that the quality of the product has declined, or that the relentless focus on making the passing game easier has imbalanced the level of competition between the QB-haves and the QB-have nots. It’s undeniable that the incessant politics, most of which is at least irritating to the core audience, has caused some people to stop watching. And it’s obvious that Hispanics are considerably less interested in the sport than the whites they have been demographically replacing while fantasy football has changed the way many fans watch the game. The fact that 8 years of economic depression means people have less average disposable income certainly hasn’t helped.
But the chief culprit, in my opinion, is overexposure. A Monday night game used to be a big deal. Adding Sunday night football and Thursday night football means there is insufficient recovery time to begin anticipating the next game. And the move from a 14-game season to a 17-game season means that there is too much football for too long a time, with too many injuries.
Here is my prescription for restoring football to its former glory.
- Reduce the 17-week, 16-game season to 15 weeks, with 14 games.
- Ban all politics by players and the league. No more flags on helmets, pink cleats, or protests. If the league can discipline a player for wearing the wrong color wristband, it can do so for failing to stand at attention, Bud Grant-style, for the anthem. Black helmet stickers for one game to honor a deceased player, coach, or owner are acceptable.
- Cut down on the number of flags, particularly those that nullify a big play without having directly affected it. And get rid of instant replay. It’s only made matters worse, to the extent that no one even knows what a catch is anymore.
- Stop emphasizing the pass. 500-yard passing games are flag football and BYU, not the NFL. Pass interference is 10 yards, automatic first down.
- Encourage more white players by adopting standard, race-neutral 2-game bans for an arrest, 4 more games for a conviction. Teams will tend to prefer the more law-abiding marginal white players over the more athletic marginal black players because the former will be able to stay on the field.
- No more wild card teams. Win the division, make the playoffs. Two rounds and the Super Bowl will end playoff fatigue.