Growing up in Connecticut, I was a die-hard fan of the New England Patriots. At one point, I didn’t miss a game—either in person or on TV, mostly the latter—for five consecutive years. I screamed at the TV and bought jerseys every other year. When I went to college in Maryland, I kept watching. My first question in my study abroad program’s Facebook group was “Anyone want to watch football with me on Sundays?” I was, in every way, a football fan. Now, a decade later, I am not.
Why I and millions of others like me are no longer watching the NFL with the feverish obsession we used to is a question consuming not just sports media, but American politics as well. There are theories. Lord, are there theories. The sports media website Awful Announcing helpfully compiled a list of 33 of the most popular among them, ranging from the plausible to actual acts of God. “Anti-protest sentiment? Anti-anti-protest sentiment? Too much violence? Not enough violence? Too much showboating? Not enough showboating?”
When spelled out, it’s obvious the harder we look, the further away we’re getting. It simply cannot be that the NFL is so fundamentally immoral that it managed to get boycotted by Mike Pence and Malcolm Gladwell. There must be another explanation, one that encompasses all political and moral viewpoints.
If you asked me around 2012 why I wasn’t watching the NFL anymore, I probably would have said something about concussions, head trauma and being disgusted by the league’s cover-up efforts to hide the science from its players and the public. All of those things were true, in the sense that they actually happened and they upset me. I was disgusted, just as I am disgusted by FIFA’s corruption or Major League Baseball’s exploitation of minor league players or absolutely everything about the NCAA. But I still watched those, to varying degrees. What made the NFL different? Why had I given up on my favorite sport?
The NFL has become a bad entertainment product and many people don’t want to spend time watching it anymore. It’s not only the best explanation, but the only possible one.
As I now read article after article describing fans leaving the NFL because it has become too politically saturated, or because the national anthem protests are fundamentally un-American, or some other moral play, I think back to my head trauma-related explanations. I recognize what the fans are doing.
The reason why everyone is unable to find the core issue behind the NFL’s declining popularity is not due to personal conviction nor principle. The NFL has become a bad entertainment product and many people don’t want to spend time watching it anymore. It’s not only the best explanation, but the only possible one.
This isn’t a subjective statement. Way back in 2010, the Wall Street Journal kicked off the burgeoning field of NFL broadcast studies by calculating the average NFL game has only 11 minutes of actual, honest-to-god football. To put it another way, that’s 93.7 percent non-football in your football: replays, men standing around, men talking and commercials. And it’s only gotten worse. As Ty Schalter wrote for FiveThirtyEight last February, “between replay reviews, commercials, penalties and incomplete passes, stoppages of all kinds have been rising since 2008.” There are far more stoppages than there used to be, thanks in part to the league mandating all touchdowns and turnovers must be reviewed.
On top of this, the league office has made two decisions to further water down its product. First, it introduced Thursday Night Football, an obvious business decision to line its pockets by selling another television time slot. But, specious game quality concerns aside, this had a disastrous cascading effect on league scheduling that made every time slot less attractive to viewers.
Previously, hardcore NFL fans could settle down on Sundays knowing the odds were pretty good they’d get three games of interest: one featuring their local team, another with a prominent late afternoon matchup, and a marquee night game. They could ignore every other game (or use the RedZone channel to catch only the interesting bits) washing out all the mundanity and mediocrity. The scheduling worked like magic for the NFL, giving the impression that all football was good football.
But with the introduction of Thursday games (and to a lesser extent, Sunday morning games broadcast live from London), two potential teams were removed from that equation. Now, you were either going to be exposed to a matchup otherwise not worthy of a primetime slot or one moved from Sunday, forcing a mediocre game to fill that slot. Suddenly, fans were being fed pedestrian matchups involving lackluster franchises like Miami, Cleveland and Buffalo masquerading as a “primetime” game.
As if this wasn’t enough of an issue, the NFL also decided to use the rulebook to standardize playing styles. Prior to 2004, the NFL offered a relatively balanced version of football. Teams could win Super Bowls with dominating defenses—the 2000 Ravens, 2001 Patriots and 2002 Buccaneers all won the Super Bowl thanks to great defenses and strong running games—without marquee (or, in some cases, even good) quarterbacks. There were lots of ways to win and lose.
Beginning in 2004, that changed. The league issued what the New York Times called a “point of emphasis edict” to call more defensive illegal contact penalties. This made defending against the pass much more difficult since cornerbacks and safeties had to allow wide receivers to run their planned routes. Combined with rules in future years expanding those protections and preventing late, low or high hits on quarterbacks, passing the ball became much easier and, therefore, much more successful.
By 2007, these rules had a profound effect on game strategy, which Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Analytics (and now at ESPN Stats & Info) summarized as follows: “Passing is much more important than running, and offense appears to be more important than defense.” By 2013, he was advocating for some teams to abandon the run entirely because passing was far and away the more effective strategy. And teams are listening. In 2003, only three teams passed the ball more than 60 percent of the time. But the trend has moved in a clear direction. Last year, 14 teams eclipsed that percentage—and for the first time ever, no team ran the ball more than they passed.
This is a huge problem for the league beyond homogeneity because there are only so many good quarterbacks. Every year, at least two-thirds of the league is doomed to mediocrity—or worse—simply because they don’t have a very good player at one position. It is the rarest of rare teams that can have any modicum of success without a top-tier quarterback, and the ones that do are consistently at the top of the standings. But it’s not just that some teams are more dominant than others; because every team relies on the pass, every game looks and feels very similar. Every team has to pass to win, but only a few teams have good passers. The rest will be, well, boring.
I think there are a lot of fans out there like me, who know all this but can’t admit it’s the fundamental reason they don’t want to watch anymore. Fandom is inherently irrational, so we cannot simply abandon the teams out of boredom; it defeats the very purpose of fandom, which mandates supporting the team through all circumstances.
So, we look for other reasons, more substantial ones, that cast us not as fickle consumers but as moral beings. It is only in the last few years, now that I have stopped watching long enough to sever my personal identity from my team’s, that I can admit it was never really about concussions or head trauma, just like I suspect it is not truly about the protests or the politicization for others. Our collective conclusion, regardless of religion, creed, political affiliations or faith in the scientific method, is increasingly aligned. It’ll just take some time to admit it.