As is often the case, the NFL office spent its free time dealing with crises caused by players, coaches and team owners.
Star quarterback Deshaun Watson has been suspended and fined after 24 women accused him of coercing them or acting outrageously during a massage. Former Kansas City Chiefs coach Brett Reed is set to plead guilty to drunk driving in an accident that severely injured a child after Reed left the team’s training facility. Dan Snyder, owner of The Washington Commanders, spent most of the summer on a yacht, apparently dodging a subpoena to testify before a congressional committee still investigating his toxic workplace privilege.
With the NFL season kicking off this week, it’s a good bet that these scandals – and many others from the annoying nuisance season – will get little or no attention in games or on TV. The NFL business will likely remain as strong as ever.
“The NFL in particular can accommodate inconsistencies and scandals and it looks like it may not be impregnable, but it certainly is very good at distraction and recovery,” said Travis Vaughan, a professor at the University of Iowa who researches American sports and culture. He said the NFL’s PR strategy was to “personalise” scandals, but “the fact that this happens so often suggests there is a systemic component to it.”
TV viewership in the NFL last season was the strongest in six years, even with most TV shows circulating around it. Last year, television networks committed about $110 billion to the NFL’s show rights for the next decade, ensuring their financial success no matter what happens with viewers around the edges. The league is on track to meet Commissioner Roger Goodell’s goal of earning $25 billion in revenue annually in 2027.
“It’s a freight train that’s on the rails, and it’s picking up speed and gaining momentum every year,” Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, said at a media event last week.
Among the mishaps the league has had with this off-season:
The NFL has fined and suspended Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross after an investigation found he had manipulated him, though it cleared him of accusations that he deliberately tried to lose games, saying he didn’t mean it when he proposed the idea to his coach.
– The Buffalo Bills have released rookie Matt Ariza after being accused of rape in a lawsuit, but only after they actually handed him a starting job despite some knowledge of the charges.
Three black coaches have accused the league of racial bias in an ongoing lawsuit.
– Henry Roggs, a former Las Vegas Raiders first-round player, has been charged with four felonies, including a DUI that led to the death, after prosecutors said he killed Tina Tentor, 23, when he drove at 156 mph. and behind her.
Alvin Camara will go on trial in New Orleans Saints this month for hitting a man eight times in a nightclub the night before the Pro Bowl in February.
Given the continuing popularity of the NFL despite these crises, it is temporary to view the league as an unstoppable tyrannical force.
But if you look a little into the future, the continued dominance of the NFL doesn’t seem nearly certain. Not because boycotting fans or advertisers will lead to drastic change, but because of health concerns, demographics, and marketing challenges.
The player’s pipeline to the NFL is drying up, as fewer kids are playing soccer. In 2018, the number of children playing in high school fell by more than 100,000 compared to 2008, a drop of nearly 10%. The decrease in the number of young children playing football is even greater. After more than a decade of stories about the risk of concussions and head trauma from soccer, more and more parents are saying the sport is not suitable for young adults.
Football is still by far the most popular high school sport, but as players shrink and more of the country’s top athletes choose to play other sports, the quality of the NFL will eventually suffer.
“This is something that specialized sports deal with all the time,” said Travis Dorsch, who runs families at the Utah State University Sports Lab and plays soccer professionally. He envisioned a future in which soccer would be a regionally popular sport as lacrosse on the East Coast and hockey in the upper Midwest, with some of the best athletes gravitating toward other sports.
Dorsch emphasized the need for coaches, teachers, and parents to provide a safer and more enjoyable experience for children if participation rates rebound. The NFL has recognized the problem, too, and is putting money behind efforts like soccer and programs that the league says reduce concussions.
The NFL is under pressure to grow for a host of reasons—among them, to meet Goodell’s revenue goals, avoid bitter business battles with players and keep owners happy by promoting ever-increasing franchise values.
Maybe one day NFL fans will turn away from the NFL because of the bad titles it sometimes generates. But so far, the league is vying to retain its audience as it faces more and more entertainment options. The league’s marketing efforts suggest it believes it needs to expand beyond the traditional demographics of American men drinking beer on the couch on Sundays. On average, NFL viewers are aging, and over the next decade most NFL games will continue to appear on traditional television even though the average viewer is about 60.
The NFL has long looked abroad, scheduling matches in Mexico and England to attract fans there. This year, the NFL will play a regular season game in Germany for the first time, and Goodell has floated the idea of games in South America.
The league is also increasingly marketing itself directly to women, in an effort to persuade those who might be casual fans — the league says half of the Super Bowl viewers are women — to get fully involved in the sport. Selling the sport becomes difficult if fans don’t believe the NFL is concerned about domestic violence or abuse of women by its players, coaches, and owners.
Research indicates that sports fans are formed by young people when they play a sport or watch it as a fan. With soccer played mostly by boys and young men in the United States, and potential fans in other countries having fewer opportunities to attend soccer matches, these fans would be more difficult to beat than American youth.
The NFL and soccer, in 2022, are deeply ingrained in American culture. It is not just a game or entertainment option, but a ritual, the way people connect with their families and communities, and the way they introduce themselves. It is a united institution in a country of which there are fewer and fewer left. The game is deeply American, which perhaps better than anything else explains its hold on society despite a series of problems.
“I think people expect football and sports to play like this kind of escape scene, and on a certain level they are OK with the contradictions and hypocrisy and even discord that exists within it,” Vaughan said. “People will say that football is very American because it is about violence and capitalism and territory, and these American myths, and maybe hypocrisy and discord and corruption are like America.”
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