The Fragile Dominance of the NFL

TV is a sports bundle held together by football. It could all fall apart if the league doesn't fix its image with women, who have accounted for three-quarters of its new viewership since 2009.

USA Today Sports/Reuters

We just can't stop watching.

The league is beset by scandals of violence against women and children by some of its most public stars and led by a commissioner, Roger Goodell, who seems to have a preternatural gift for radiating whatever is the opposite of empathy. Then the week ends, and national indignation fades to the sidelines, for a few hours at least.

The NFL commanded the top three broadcasts of last week, with Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, and Sunday Night Football. NBC's Sunday game is the most popular show on TV in 2014, the third consecutive year it has held that number-one spot, according to Nielsen.

In fact, football has never been stronger compared to the rest of TV. Below, I've graphed how football's primetime audience* has compared to the average of the top-ten broadcast dramas, comedies, and reality shows since 2000.

Football vs. Non-Football on TV

But even that forking understates football's dominion over television. As viewers have learned to time-shift their favorite shows, where they can skip over ads, the value of a live event has soared. The cost of securing exclusive rights to live sports events have gone up for just about every athletic activity under the sun. But whereas ratings for baseball and other sports have stagnated, the NFL's ratings have grown. Indeed, they could be the keystone holding together the wobbly arch of pay-TV. Years into the recovery, young people are still resisting the pull of television. TV viewership among every age demographic under 55 is down between 12 and 16 percent since 2009, according to analysis from MoffettNathanson. Without the allure of live sports, the cable bundle might unravel.

As Kevin Clark wrote, the NFL runs the television business, the advertising business, and the attention business. It's unfair to compare football to the movie industry, the music industry, or any other pop culture industry, because nothing channels eyeballs like football. If the number of people watching the Super Bowl this year had to buy a $10 movie ticket to watch the NFL's title game, that movie's domestic box office would be higher than The Avengers and Frozen—combined. Today, the NFL is comparable to the rest of pop culture the way a skyscraper is a part of a strip mall.

So, is that it? Is football invincible?
Not at all. In fact, the league should be positively freaked out by the domestic abuse scandals of the past month. According to data obtained by The Atlantic from Nielsen, women have accounted for 76 percent of the increase in overall football viewership since 2009. A moral institution doesn't need extra motivation to keep its employees from beating women, but since the NFL hasn't quite dazzled with its moral instincts recently, perhaps this point bears repeating: Women are football's growth demographic.
What's more, tastes can change, with football as with any entertainment, but they don't happen fast enough to be registered in weekly ratings. Last year, there were five shows with more than 10 million households watching per week. In 2000, there were 16 shows with more than 10 million households tuning in weekly. They included Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Temptation Island, two shows that once seemed like the future of television—money games and reality sex shows!—and now seem like mild cultural embarrassments. Although it seems inconceivable that somebody 14 years from now will be writing an article that begins, "Remember when millions of morally conflicted Americans still tuned into Sunday Night Football?" the past two weeks have made such a future nearly conceivable.
Ratings periods are frequent reminders of the NFL's dominance, but cultural shifts don't happen in a fortnight. They feel more like Hemingway described the experience of bankruptcy: gradually, and then suddenly. The demise of NFL, if it comes, won't be like an implosion, but an oceanside erosion—slowly, slowly, slowly, and then all at once.

* The NFL line includes both Monday Night Football, which aired on ABC until 2005, and Sunday Night Football, which has aired on NBC since. ESPN owned Sunday Night Football, which it gave up to buy rights to Monday Night Football in 2006. That's a lot of mentions of -days and Football, so just know the upshot is: I'm comparing the NFL's top primetime broadcast to the most popular non-sports shows.