This has been a rough fall for the National Football League. Commissioner Roger Goodell is — again — under fire, not just from the public, but from one of his most prominent owners. That owner — Jerry Jones — is publicly feuding with his 30 billionaire boys club owners. (The Packers, remember, are publicly owned).
There’s more: plenty more. The league is under attack from the President of the United States, who has decided that peaceful protests during the national anthem are a threat to the country’s future and that the owners are at fault for not just firing every “SOB” who takes a knee.
CTE continues to be an issue, although it’s my belief that most of those who buy tickets or watch games on TV, could care less about what the game does to the health of the players. The President falls into this category, publicly complaining that the game’s being ruined by rules designed to protect the players.
Attendance — especially in terms of people actually showing up — is down. TV ratings are down. The NFL, if you believe the pundits, is in trouble.
Most of these issues are ephemeral, just like the ratings drop last fall brought about in large part by the soap opera posing as a Presidential election. Goodell and the owners, including the aggrieved Jerry Jones, will end up singing Kumbaya with one another by the time the Super Bowl rolls around and the fact is that no one is staying away from a game because Goodell and Jones are feuding.
There are those — the President included — who would like to believe the anthem protests are the reason for the drops in attendance and ratings. I have no doubt there are a handful of people who aren’t watching the NFL because of the protests, but not enough to move the TV ratings meters or seriously affect attendance.
The irony in this is, until 9-11, the anthem wasn’t considered important enough by the league or the TV networks to merit the presence of the players on the field. It was played before TV went on the air with the teams in the locker room. After 9-11, all that changed, and nowadays, the NFL turns the playing of the anthem into a chance to wrap itself tightly in the flag. In fact, on occasion, it has been paid by the Pentagon to do so.
Long term, CTE and the damage the sport can do to people’s bodies is going to be a major issue because more and more parents are going to tell their sons to try another sport. That doesn’t mean football will go away — boxing is still around — but it may not be the monolith it has been for the last 30 or 40 years 30 or 40 years from now.
To me, though, for all the rhetoric spilled on the political issues; the Goodell screw-ups (see Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Tom Brady et al) plus his absolute refusal to be transparent on any issue and the feuding owners, there’s one reason why the NFL is struggling right now.
The quality of the games.
I’ve been in an NFL press box almost every Sunday this fall and I can tell you watching a game in the stadium — even if you DON’T pay $40 to park your car — is pretty miserable. When you’re at home and a game drags, you can change the channel; get up and go for a walk; go to the bathroom and/or get something to eat or pack it in for the afternoon and do something meaningful.
Like read a book. (hint, hint).
When you are at a game, you’re trapped. The TV timeouts are endless and invasive. Not only do they make it impossible for the game to have any flow, they’re just flat out boring to sit through. And, at this time of year, if you’re sitting in the stands, it can get very cold, very quickly. In September, you can roast if you’re sitting on the sunny side of the field.
But that’s not all. For whatever reason, the quality of play this season is down — way down. There just haven’t been that many really good games. Oh sure, there are close games, but that’s a long way from a good game.
On Sunday, in the wind tunnel that is MetLife Stadium, the Giants and Chiefs played about as bad an NFL game as you are likely to see anywhere, anytime. The two quarterbacks — both very good quarterbacks — missed throws that they’d normally make in their sleep. There were AT LEAST eight flat-out drops by receivers. I don’t mean balls they MIGHT have caught, I mean balls that they could have caught with their eyes closed.
There was one touchdown in almost 70 minutes of football — it came in the first quarter on a 26-yard drive. The only moment that made the day even a little bit worthwhile came when referee Brad Allen said to the players before the overtime coin toss: “Gentlemen, congratulations…”
For what, extending the torture of watching the game into overtime?
The game was not an outlier.
There are also far too many rules and too many penalties. The Ravens-Browns game that I went to in September had THIRTY-FIVE penalties. The Eagles-Broncos game a couple weeks ago had 28. Neither was competitive and each took close to three-and-a-half hours. Who would want to pay for a ticket, pay to park, deal with traffic going in and out and pay $15 for a beer to watch that?
Based on what I can see, more and more fans are paying NOT to go to games. The Giants announced attendance Sunday as 76,363. At peak, there MIGHT have been 55,000 people in the stadium. Early and late there were far fewer than that. If not for the resale market, where fans can buy tickets for close to nothing, stadiums would be a lot more empty than they already are these days.
When the Giants and Washington play on Thanksgiving night, you can bet there will be plenty of empty seats in the stadium formerly named for Jack Kent Cooke. You can, I’m told, buy a ticket for that game for $8. And then pay $40 to park of course.
Goodell and the owners believed there was no limit to what the public would accept from them. First they added Sunday night games and then Thursday night games to cash in a couple hundred million more dollars — forget what playing on three days rest does to players. They accepted such bloated TV rights fees from the networks that they had to allow them to sell almost unlimited commercials. This season, they tried to pull back on the number of times there would be a score, a commercial break, a kickoff and another commercial break. Instead, they made the breaks even longer — although the back-to-back three minute breaks do still occur on occasion if a team has the nerve to go on an extended drive and take too much time off the clock.
I know people still LOVE the NFL and LIVE for Sundays. ESPN still has an NFL show on somewhere 365 days a year. The league is still a monolith. But it’s a dinged monolith.
Years ago, when I covered the old North American Soccer League, the people running the league were convinced that soccer was going to take over the U.S. the way it rules the world. They even came up with a slogan: “Soccer, the sport of the ’80s.”
By 1984, the league was gone — dead. It over-expanded and it turned out it wasn’t the sport of the ’80s. Maybe the 2080s.
I asked my good friend, Terry Hanson, who worked for both the Washington Diplomats and the Atlanta Chiefs, what had gone wrong.
“Simple,” he said, “The gaping wound.”
“The gaping wound — the game’s not good enough.”
It may be an overstatement to call the quality of play in the NFL these days a gaping wound. But there’s definitely blood in the water — and inside the stadiums.
John Feinstein’s new book is, “The First Major—The Inside Story of The 2016 Ryder Cup,”—which is a New York Times bestseller. His latest book for Young Adults is, “Backfield Boys,”—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” which is out now for Christmas.