DA: The NFL Kings Are Nervous About Ratings

It seemed bulletproof for all of us that sit behind microphones and in front of keyboards. If you want calls, clicks, and interest you always steer toward the NFL. This has been the rule of thumb that developed for sports media over the last decade. Ratings keep climbing. Fantasy football is its own economy. Jersey sales skyrocket. Cultural saturation is complete. Ride the wave.

But to see the league issue an internal memo Friday (which undoubtedly it wanted reported by mainstream media), defending its territory and rationalizing its drop in television audience is startling. The Kings know they look vulnerable. And The Kings don’t know that feeling.

Fifteen years ago when I began my professional career the NFL’s overwhelming dominance was not such a stark reality. Baseball was a much bigger piece of the national sports landscape. The homerun chase of ’98, the peak of the Yankees modern dynasty, super stars like McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and Clemens (a who’s who of disreputable cheats) made it culturally relevant. The NFL was popular of course, but not like it is now. It had not made the conscious decision to court women and casual fans. There was no Red Zone channel. In 1998, John Elway’s final game, the Super Bowl, was watched by 83 million Americans. This past February, Peyton Manning demolished that. His final game was viewed by 167 million Americans. You could argue the NFL had incredibly doubled its popularity in 15 years.

So hosting a sports radio show is relatively easy 365 days a year now. Scan NFL.com for the latest league news, form an opinion, and lead with it no matter the time of year. It seems that all football news matters, even the minutiae. Free-agent signings. The draft. Preseason. The combine. I mean, the freaking combine. Ratings continued to climb higher through last season. Of the six highest rated shows on TV in ’15, four were football. NBC’s Sunday Night Football (1), CBS’ Thursday Night Football (3), NBC’s pregame show (5), and Fox’s postgame show (6). Thankfully Empire and the Big Bang Theory elbowed their way in there or we would be a nation of 320 million leather oblong spheroids with eyes.

But this year has been different. Very different. Primetime ratings for the NFL are down. Sunday afternoon numbers are down. Male and female viewers are down. This has been embarrassing for the league because it charges your first born and two limbs to broadcast their games. The NFL views itself as impenetrable, and with good reason. Despite myriad public relations failures and comical leadership by Goodell and owners (Jim Irsay’s pill-riddled DUI, anyone?), despite domestic abuse and never-ending investigations, the league’s ratings were up. Always up.

And so what happens when The Kings are forced to confront with a very public drop in those precious Nielsen numbers? The PR team explains it away as a mere anomaly. You can almost hear Goodell shouting from his Park Avenue office window: We’re still The Kings! Because ultimately jersey sales and tickets sold are just the frosting. The billion dollar cake is the eyeballs sitting in living rooms and man caves drinking beer, buying cars, and eating cheap, bad pizza.

The memo cites the increased interest in the presidential election. Yeah, that probably has something to do with it. And that narrative works for the NFL because then there’s “nothing to see here, this will all be over in a few weeks.” Maybe it’s the loss of Peyton and Brady (but there’s plenty of other household names). Maybe it’s bad matchups (but that hasn’t affected numbers impactfully in the past). I think it’s something more.

The memo of course dismisses public frustration over the anthem protests, which is dishonest. They know this has had an effect, and I believe it’s a profound one. There are plenty of fans turned off by what they view as exorbitantly paid athletes shoving political views into the escape of games. There are fans who are members of law enforcement or have family members in law enforcement bothered by this. Some believe it’s disrespect to the military, flipping a middle-finger to the country that they love. Still others actually support the cause, but simply resent having the games turned into another political divide.

You may not agree with any of these perspectives, but it’s how many people interpret it. Watching the NFL is still a choice and they’re choosing something else right now. Everyone in the league office realizes this is a rock and a hard place. Fundamentally, there are no bylaws in the CBA that mandate anthem protocol. Start fining guys or threatening to sit them and you have a labor revolt on your hands. Socially, prevent the athletes from having their voice, and the league comes off as a dictatorship and un-American. Almost all owners like Jerry Jones hate these protests. Why wouldn’t they? For a few dozen billionaire white guys their biggest problems are which island in the South Pacific they want to purchase. Why protest the anthem? America has been very, very good to them.

That’s why the commish and owners have gritted their teeth, and tried to step around the landmine. They hate the protests, but they’re powerless to speak out against it. Even this may be a fleeting frustration, though. If we reach the holidays, and every team has 2-3 players who kneel during the anthem, it may just become another part of Sundays, like Matthew McConaughey and Papa John. When the games really matter and the weather is lousy, will those people still avoid watching? I doubt it. Nonetheless, the reality is The Kings are a little antsy right now. They don’t like looking impotent. And they’ve never been forced to envision a public that doesn’t gorge on their product. The memo also does not address the very hazy elephant in the room. Maybe we’ve just finally binged enough, and now we’ve got a stomachache.

D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.

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