Roasting the Goose
By Ivan Cole
No, this isn’t the Sunday Food-Related post. Furthermore, Ivan has spared you from more pictures of my daughter-in-law’s bathroom. For this we can all be profoundly grateful…
Word is out that NFL viewership is down. Though there may be short term issues that are of influence, we have to consider whether long term trends and decisions may be beginning to catch up with the league and coming home to roost.
The big story in the current news cycle is NFL television ratings have taken a significant dip as outlined in these three accounts published this past week—in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and SI’s MMQB, Nobody really knows the true meaning of what is transpiring, whether this is just a blip caused by transitory matters such as the riveting drama of the presidential debates or part of the technological evolution that allows for viewers to be less dependent upon traditional platforms for game access such as cable and other influences.
Since we don’t know for certain, then I argue that we have to consider factors that may very well transcend these sort of concerns. Specifically, is it time to consider whether the league, its partners and, to a certain extent, the fans have squandered the good thing they had in professional football.
What qualifies me to put forward this conversation is that I am one of those whose NFL viewership has been in pretty sharp decline over the past several years. I doubt if I am any closer to an accurate assessment of the situation than others, but I would highlight some issues that either weren’t mentioned or given lesser emphasis in the accounts that have been put forward thus far. This won’t be necessarily in order of importance, just as it comes to mind—I will outline a few of the factors that I think might contribute to a decline in viewership.
As I write this on a Thursday morning I realize that there is a game on tonight but have no idea who is playing and could care less. Most weeks I forget that there are games on Thursday nights and don’t tune in. The times that I do I don’t stay for long. On Sundays there is an eleven-hour block of time, running from 1 pm to almost midnight, that is continuous football. This doesn’t count the pregame shows. I can assure you that I never sit through that entire block. Nor do I know anyone, including several of you who may be reading this and are sometimes my viewing partners who do so as well.
Additionally, if the Steelers don’t happen to be playing that day I might not be inclined to watch at all (an issue that I will address shortly). Because having ESPN would involve an extra cost to my cable plan I don’t watch Monday night games, unless, again, the Steelers are involved, in which case I will find a sports bar or other location in order to watch.
On average, there will be six games available during a typical week of the season. Depending upon the circumstances I might watch two end to end, and possibly a portion of others. Some, as this segment suggests, of the reasons would be related to saturation, but there are other issues at play here as well.
Devolution of focus from national to local
This is a somewhat complex subject that I will try to cover in pieces. Each of the popular major sports have their own peculiar characteristics that can enhance their appeal to the mass audience or can serve as liabilities. One advantage the NFL, and football in general, had over other sports was that its games were played less frequently. The shorter schedule, played in one week intervals, required little in the way of artificial hype to be seen as apocalyptic spectacles of great individual significance. Each game mattered.
In that context, with the stakes so high, the violence inherent in the game also seemed an appropriate enhancement to the drama. Where in every other major sport the playoffs involved a series of confrontations between antagonists, in football it is a one shot deal where a season of effort can collapse or be validated by one bounce of a ball (The Immaculate Reception).
Football has held a tremendous advantage as a global amusement because of these factors. The pace of the schedule, with relatively few, infrequent encounters, overcame structural impediments such as rosters that were double or more of other sports, as well as the anonymity of participants shrouded in armor. Nonetheless, what resulted was a game and its teams that were both easy to follow and to be seduced into the drama of each encounter.
On the other hand, the appreciation of baseball, for example, must remain mostly local. The frequency of play, sometimes every day of a week, as well as the intimacy and slowness of the interactions, causes a certain level of degradation when you attempt to translate the game to a national stage. This loss of nuance makes a matchup between the Cleveland Indians and the Miami Marlins far less comprehensible to both casual and fairly serious fans than one between the Cleveland Browns and the Miami Dolphins.
Only in this short window of the year during the playoffs does baseball possess the power to court global engagement, and even then it is handicapped in that it demands that viewers invest in multiple encounters (three hours x five to seven games, vs one three-hour investment for football). This advantage allowed the NFL to dominate the global high ground for half a century.
But slowly that advantage has been relinquished. Going Deep is a site that focuses on one team, as is true of virtually every other football fan site out there. The motivations driving this are varied, ranging from an affection for the game and a favored team that fuels an interest in the most significant and trivial details of the process, to a form of greed driven by a corporate mindset that seeks to squeeze every possible dollar from the public through the promotion of the game as a year around phenomena, even though the game itself has not (indeed cannot and should not) increased much, if at all. in terms of the bottom line product, games played.
Put another way, football fans are looking more like baseball fans every day. There are benefits to this, but let’s focus the attention on two liabilities. The first is that fans enjoy a depth of understanding about one team, in our case the Steelers, but at the price of a creeping ignorance concerning the overall landscape of the rest of the league. We do, indeed, see things through a black and gold lens. How can this be a bad thing?
A couple of examples. We may say that Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in the league. But if you haven’t actually seen or followed the other backs who performing at this time, what does that mean? Let’s say, as it is in baseball, that it’s about statistics. Bob Labriola points out this week that Frank Gore just statistically passed Jim Brown on the all-time rushing list. But for anyone who had the good fortune to have actually witnessed Brown play, to think that the two backs are comparable is absurd.
A few years ago when the team was struggling, the coaching staff was heavily criticized for not teaching proper tackling and time management issues. But now many of us realize that tackling and time management are not a uniquely local concern, but rather, part of structural concerns across the league? So, what if, based upon that level of ignorance, you had fired the current regime or created instability by not extending Tomlin’s contract? You would have Cleveland.
This can explain a little remarked upon aspect of fan responsiveness. You would think, rationally speaking, that a clear advantage in both numbers and perspective would accrue to those in Steelers Nation who reside in Western Pennsylvania. But, if the comments section were our guide, those of us residing in the diaspora more than hold our own, and often, even dominate the discussions. Why? When you reside in Delaware, DC Metro, Canada, Hawaii, Chicago, New Jersey, and other locations far and wide, parochialism really isn’t an option.
Living with the trials and tribulations of the local football organizations, or where there is an absence of any football presence at all, renders a different appreciation of the Pittsburgh situation. There is no way, for example, that one can be exposed to the day to day reality of the Washington team and be anything but grateful for the so-called problems of Steelers Nation.
There is also now what I would call an Alamo effect, in that some fans, increasingly alienated from the direction and shortcomings of the professional game, are involved in a slow motion retreat, circling the wagons around the one thing that they still believe strongly in, their home team, and largely abandoning the rest. This most accurately reflects my current sentiments. My fidelity to the Steelers remains high. As for the rest of it? This alone could explain a decline in viewership.
But, unfortunately, we really haven’t hit bottom yet. Football is not just devolving from a more global to local perspective. It is also, thanks to Fantasy, increasingly atomizing to an extent that the very integrity of the sport is being distorted. This and other matters will be discussed in the next segment.