What does $50 billion buy?

It’s about how much Americans spend on their pets each year and approximately the size of the Department of Education. It’s also how much television networks and carriers, such as ESPN, CBS, NBC, and DirecTV, have committed to the National Football League until the early 2020s. In an age of fractured audiences, guaranteed viewers are more valuable (and expensive) than ever. As younger viewers abandon linear television and cable subscribers DVR their favorite shows, live sports has become traditional television’s most valuable property for advertisers, the keystone holding up the grand arc of the cable bundle.

But perhaps television’s safest bet isn’t as safe as people thought. Football ratings are down double digits across the board, and the pain is spread across networks and nights. Ratings are down on Sunday afternoons on Fox and CBS, on Sunday nights on NBC, and on Monday nights on ESPN.

What’s going on? Here are four big picture theories, ranging from empirical to speculative.

1. The temporary explanation: It’s the election, stupid.

The simplest and most obvious excuse for football’s ratings collapse is that the King Kong of cable has been scorched by the Godzilla of the 2016 presidential race. The first two presidential debates received tens of millions of viewers each, which has clearly sapped primetime audiences for Monday Night Football on ESPN and Sunday Night Football on NBC.

There is a precedent for a dramatic presidential contest stealing thunder from the NFL. In a memo to teams, the NFL reported that during the 2000 campaign, “all four NFL broadcast partners suffered [ratings declines] … Fox was down 4 percent, CBS was down 10 percent, ABC was down 7 percent and ESPN was down 11 percent.” But the injury was hardly mortal. In the next 15 years, NFL viewership rose 27 percent, even as primetime viewership for other shows and programming fell by more than a third. So perhaps the NFL has suffered a similar blow in the autumn of 2016.

The benefit and the drawback of this theory is that it is falsifiable. In four weeks, the nation votes. If football ratings don’t bounce back, then it will be clear that something else is happening.

2. The structural explanation: It’s the decline of television ownership and cable viewership.

Something else is happening.

Unlike in 2000, when cable was entering its golden decade, the traditional television industry is in structural decline. TV ratings are down an astonishing 40 percent among teenagers and younger twentysomethings, who are critical to sports viewership. ESPN viewership was already declining long before Donald Trump began to dominate the news and entertainment landscape in 2016.


Matthew Ball

Football ratings may bounce back in November and December. But football is the biggest fish in an increasingly shrinking pond, and eventually one has to expect that young viewers’ abandonment of television will have a discernable effect on NFL ratings, much to the dismay of the networks that have collectively committed $50 billion on the rights to air football games.

3. The technological explanation: It’s the fragmentation of football across days, screens, and platforms.

Several weeks ago, I was on a train to New York on a Sunday afternoon. I wanted to follow several NFL games to keep track of players I hold on various fantasy football teams. There are no televisions on Amtrak, but I still managed to follow ten games at once on my phone and computer. When Twitter alerted me to a big catch or touchdown play, I could often find the highlight on NFL.com. It wasn’t quite like watching a game live, but it was a relatively satisfying football experience, like eating several mini sliders rather than having a single great burger.

Once a singular Sunday-afternoon experience, football has splintered across days, screens, and platforms. Live games now air on Thursday nights, Sunday afternoons, Sunday evenings, and Monday nights. Football statistics update live on several websites. For some fans, fantasy football has nearly eclipsed the game itself, and watching a single game from one’s couch is an inferior television experience for fantasy players. It’s far better to go to a bar with several screens, where big plays are emotionally buttressed by rowdy cheers from other viewers, while following fantasy updates on a mobile app.

The principle drawback with this theory it that it might be intellectually satisfying, but it’s awfully difficult to prove with data. Fantasy football has been a mainstream movement for more than a decade, and bars have been showing football games for many decades. Even if it’s conceivable that many football fans have shared something like my “Amtrak experience,” it’s unreasonable to expect millions of them to abandon live football on Fox all at once. So, this technological explanation doesn’t serve as a solitary excuse, even though it might be affecting viewership at the margins.

4. The entertainment explanation: It’s the twilight of a golden age in football.

An astute 2014 column in the New Yorker about the slow decline of baseball's national popularity pointed out that the game simply lacked national heroes. Even Mike Trout, the precociously talented slugger for the Los Angeles Angels, seemed to possess every desirable attribute in a baseball star save for charisma. "If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar,” the author Ben McGrath asked, “would you recognize him?" I am not entirely confident that I would.

Call it the superstar theory of mass media: Audiences need simple and predictable hero-and-villain storylines from their mainstream media, particularly when there is so much for them to keep track of across the pop culture landscape. Major movie studios have found that people are more likely to buy tickets to sequels and prequels of the same comic book universes. But it is true even in news and sports: ESPN and CNN have found that viewers are more likely to tune in when networks cover the same major storylines over and over.

Does the NFL have a budding star problem? Maybe. Among the few players with the best-selling NFL jerseys from 2013 and 2014, three have retired (Peyton Manning, Marshawn Lynch, and Calvin Johnson), three have been suspended (Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, and Johnny Manziel), and two have been benched (Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III). The best quarterbacks of the last few years are in commercial Valhalla (Manning), in the twilight of their careers (Brady and Drew Brees), and suffering through a strange mid-career drought (Aaron Rodgers). The youngest crop of potential superstars includes both frustratingly disappointing talents like Andrew Luck and earnest stars like Russell Wilson, whose telegenism is as elusive as his spin move. At a time when the National Basketball Association is swimming in historic talent and national attention, the NFL doesn’t quite seem to have found a young champion who transcends the sport. After years of super-powered offenses, the active player with the most  commercial time might be Von Miller, a ferocious pass-rushing specialist.

Meanwhile, the league has suffered some damaging public-relations battles, including the drama over Colin Kaepernick’s protests of the national anthem and the league’s troubling concussion problem, which has so far hurt the league’s image more than its ratings; although, perhaps the accumulation of health concerns is finally dragging down viewership. Finally, the league has waged a pointless and joyless war against any touchdown celebration that displays even the faintest sign of glee.

***

If football ratings don’t perk up in November, the league may have to grapple with the possibility that people aren’t tuning into football for the same reason they don’t show up to some movies: They just don’t think they’ll have much fun watching. And there is so much else to watch.