Thursday afternoon, the Cowboys will host their annual Thanksgiving Day game, this one against Washington. In many ways, it is a moment the NFL has been waiting for: an iconic team, freshly ascendant, playing on the holiday synonymous with football. It features the blend that has made the sport America’s most watched and most profitable: tradition and novelty, old customs shined up by new superstars. This Thanksgiving, though, partway through one of the more trying seasons in recent memory, the league will look to the Cowboys not to celebrate its ongoing standing but rather to revive it.
NFL ratings have dropped. For the league, the decline in viewership is as much an ideological problem as a fiscal one. Football is the sport of a certain strain of the American dream, one that operates on a corporate rather than an individual scale, in which success compounds and growth begets more growth, perpetually. It is a game whose championships announce their halftime performers months beforehand, in special news releases, and whose teams charge more for parking than teams in other sports do for the actual tickets. The NFL has long since passed the point where its hugeness might be thought of as a simple result, e.g. more people want to watch us play, so we need bigger stadiums. The size, the sheer scope of the country’s appetite for this product, has become a core component of it. The sense that everyone is watching the same game on a Sunday afternoon is an undeniable part of that game’s appeal.
That sense is weakening, and various theories have been offered as to why. Some blame the drawn-out and attention-hoarding presidential election, others the less regimented television habits of a new generation. Critics of the league’s extensive faults—ranging from its ongoing concussion crisis to its mishandling of domestic-violence incidents—suggest that the public may no longer have the stomach for it. The NFL itself attributes the ratings slide partly to bad luck, a run of primetime matchups that looked good on the preseason schedule but have since turned out to be uninspiring. “There are a lot of factors to be considered,” the commissioner Roger Goodell said in October. “We don’t make excuses. We try to figure out what’s changing.”
Perhaps the most worrisome hypothesis, at least to NFL officials, is that the quality of play simply isn’t up to par. Thursday Night Football, a series introduced before the 2012 season, routinely features sloppy games played by two poorly rested teams, but even the usual Sunday and Monday contests have increasingly been lacking. To a greater degree than ever, teams rely on younger and more affordable players, who make mistakes their more seasoned counterparts might not. Players of all ages are also subject to stricter injury protocols, which may help their long-term health but which dilutes the talent on the field; the linebacker who may have played through “having his bell rung” five years ago now visits the independent neurologist on the sideline while his backup takes his place. The NFL’s failsafe has always been the expertise of its teams, but more and more, that trait is being chipped away.