Last Sunday night’s NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans drew 12.9 million viewers, a massive 38.4 percent drop from last year’s week six game. It was the least-watched Sunday Night Football game in five years.
If this drastic ratings drop was an anomaly, you could blame the uninteresting matchup. Houston (4-2) represents the best (or perhaps the least awful) team the dismal AFC South provides, and Indianapolis (2-4) is a rudderless ship, plagued with injuries and coaching issues.
But the Sunday night numbers are not unique. Viewership is still high—the NHL and MLB would love the same numbers—but has dropped by around 10 percent. While the NFL is quick to blame election coverage for stealing eyeballs, I can’t help but think there is more to the story.
As a long-time fan of the NFL, I’ve noticed my own apathy toward the league grow this year. I tune in to watch my favorite team play. I’ll catch a game if I’m not busy or need background noise. But my passion for the sport is waning. Given the numbers, I’m likely not alone. Here are a few reasons people may be turning away from the sport.
1. Flags Fly Forever
No other major professional sport is affected by referees or officials more than the NFL. It degrades the quality of games when almost every play is followed by a flurry of yellow flags. In Monday night’s Cardinals vs. Jets game, referees threw 23 penalty flags.
Obviously some penalty flags are necessary to protect players and the integrity of the game. But seemingly every deep incomplete pass is flagged for pass interference. Almost every time a player laughs or dances or points his finger on the field, he’s flagged for excessive celebration. If a defensive player gets too close to an opposing quarterback, he’s flagged for roughing the passer. When fans watch an athletic event, their enjoyment comes from the skill and strategy the players use to win the game. When that skill and strategy is overridden incessantly by officials, the game becomes an exercise in frustration.
By far the worst use of the penalty flags this year has been for excessive celebration. Players have been flagged, and teams penalized 15 yards each time—for dancing, “choreographed celebration,” using the football to make a jump shot, and countless other displays of enthusiasm. Redskins cornerback Josh Norman received a personal foul after miming a bow and arrow shot following a game-changing interception.
This is an intentional choice by the NFL to crack down on such shenanigans, because players are “role models” to young viewers, according to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The hypocrisy stands out clearly to fans. The NFL seems fine with having its players break bones and crack skulls on the field, walking away with injuries that will follow them for the rest of their lives—but God forbid someone pull out a dance move. The NFL claims that it wants to protect kids by keeping players from celebrating, a strange idea by itself—but has no problem with the non-stop Viagra commercials played during each broadcast, or up-skirt shots of team cheerleaders.
This is the same league that initially suspended Baltimore running back Ray Rice in 2014 for only two games after he punched his then-fiancée in the face and dragged her unconscious body out of an elevator. The league’s priorities are inexplicable.
2. Commercials, Commercials Everywhere
The NFL has always tried to milk every last penny of ad revenue out of games, but there seems to be an advertising overkill this season. This especially affects the younger generation in America, which has already shown a propensity for moving away from commercial-laden cable and toward online streaming and other sources that minimize advertisements or allow advertisements to be more easily skipped.
If you’re a diehard NFL fan and it’s the only sport you watch, take a break and watch some hockey, baseball, basketball, or soccer. It’s crazy, right? You actually get to see a game played.
Every NFL game follows a similar pattern: kickoff (15 seconds), commercials (2 minutes), a couple of plays (1-2 minutes), commercials (2 minutes), punt (15 seconds), commercials (2 minutes), and so on and so forth. CBS even inadvertently cut out some gameplay for more commercials last Thursday night. NFL games last from three to three and a half hours, but only around 11 minutes is actual playing time. I’m not making that up.
3. Inconsistency, Thy Name Is Catch
How many people in the country, including referees, actually know what a catch is? What does it mean “to control the ball” to secure a catch? When does the player who caught the ball become a runner? The vagueness of the NFL’s catch rule, as well as the inconsistency in how catches are defined by referees, hammers home the fact that officials have as much to say in a game’s outcome as the players do. Did your team just score a very obvious touchdown? Don’t celebrate. You have to sit and wait for several minutes as the NFL tries to figure out if the player actually caught the ball.
The same inconsistency can be found in other rules: what constitutes pass interference? The answer depends on that day’s officiating crew. At what point is a tackle considered roughing the quarterback? Depends on the quarterback.
With a little over a minute left in Sunday’s Falcons vs. Seahawks game, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw a deep pass to his receiver Julio Jones on fourth down. Jones went for the ball, but Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the ball.
To everyone watching, Sherman had clearly committed pass interference, and the Falcons, trailing 26-24, would benefit from the penalty and have a chance to take the lead. Instead, the referees didn’t throw a flag. Because of another inexplicable NFL rule, the play was not reviewable. The Seahawks were awarded the ball, ran out the clock, and won the game. Eleven penalty flags had been thrown—but none when it mattered most, at least to Atlanta fans.
The inconsistency sends irrational fans to that great fallback conspiracy theory: that the league is rigging games. Just ask Browns fans.
4. No Cameras Allowed
The league’s social media policy is a great example of the NFL actively making things worse for fans and teams. Basically, the new rules state that teams can’t post videos or GIFs from television on social media between kickoff and an hour after the game. They also can’t take videos inside the stadiums, and can’t post live videos through Facebook, Twitter, or Periscope.
The NFL is actively lowering fan participation and free advertisement on social media in an attempt to maximize profits from the content it produces. While some teams have had fun with the new rules by using paper footballs and toy figures to reenact highlights for their social media followers, fans of the game, especially the younger generation, continue to express their frustration.
Team penalties for violating the social media policy can reach $100,000.
5. Something’s Gotta Give
In addition to the above points, NFL fans have been bombarded with the negative news cycle surrounding the league—which includes domestic violence issues, national anthem protests, the NFL’s concussion hypocrisy, decreased participation in youth football nationwide, the Deflategate controversy, the poor selection of primetime games, the loss of marketable stars, and the NFL’s misguided disciplinary policy.
The violent nature of the NFL may have already marked a future expiration date for the league. While that date may not be anytime soon, the NFL is pushing away fans right now. The constant stream of revenue pouring into league coffers has prevented the commissioner from addressing fan concerns to this point, but when November 8 passes, officials will no longer be able to blame the election for dropping viewership.
Baseball is looking really good right now.