The NFL season kicks off tonight. As I sit here with the TV on in the background, I see that rain has delayed the kickoff. It seems somewhat emblematic of the NFL as a whole right now.
For a little background, I love football. I came of age in the great state of Texas where life happens around football games. Thursday nights were for JV games, Friday Night Lights warmed you up for college ball on Saturday. Sundays were full of football and Monday Night Football capped off the week. After the weekend (Tuesday and Wednesday), the cycle started again. Watching football during on Thanksgiving and Christmas were as much a part of the traditions of those holidays as eating too much and a couch nap.
The last couple of years, I noticed that I was watching a lot less NFL. It wasn’t really a conscious decision. I’m not boycotting. But I used to watch any NFL game that was on. I would make a point to watch my team, but I was perfectly happy turning on a Bengals game if it was on because I enjoyed watching the game.
As this season kicks off, I didn’t even realize there was a game tonight until about an hour ago. I’m in a fantasy football league this year after a break for a couple of years. I struggled to know a good number of the players for the draft. I’m not even really sure which teams are expected to be good or not.
I’m just not as interested as I used to be. Why?
I suppose it could be age, but I still love to watch college football. I’ll watch any of the games. I also really enjoy watching high school football. I still really enjoy watching the game – just not the NFL as much.
Part of the reason is that the NFL has screwed with the schedule too much. Now there are NFL games on Thursdays, Saturdays, Sunday mornings when they play in Europe, etc. It’s a mess. Sometimes I just don’t even know there’s a game on.
Then, the NFL decided to mess with the delivery options. I realize that there are many options available for delivering television content. We pulled the plug years ago. But I’m not going to sign up for a subscription service I don’t already have, buy the NFL channel, or log into Facebook to watch a game. I remember when they first had a game exclusively on the NFL network. I shrugged and said, “oh well… it’s just a game.” That was one less game that I might have watched.
In recent years, the NFL has also been making the rules incomprehensible. I don’t mind complexity in the game. That is part of what makes it fun. It is a complex game with 22 men on the field with different assignments, skills, and responsibilities. There are nuances to coaching, clock management, officiating, etc. But the rules have become so ridiculous that even knowledgeable viewers can’t tell if a catch is a catch, or a touchdown is a touchdown, without a slow motion replay, an abacus, Ouiga board, 5 dice, and a Magic Eight Ball. And even then you’ll come to a different conclusion than the official. I don’t mind arguing about the occasional bad call, but I can’t even tell if the call is bad or not most of the time.
Finally, there are the protests. Sports are fun, but they are an escape from “real life.” They are supposed to be a mental break from work, politics, and the stressors of daily life. When watching or not watching a game becomes some sort of political virtue signal, I’m less interested in participating. I’d rather find a different way to spend my leisure time.
I suspect that football will be around for a long time, but I am starting to have my doubts about the NFL. I am, after all, one of their target demographics. I’m a football-luvin’ middle-aged guy with enough discretionary income to go to games and buy their advertisers’ merchandise if I want. I’m just not that into the NFL anymore. The league won’t die because of boycotts and protests. It will die when too many people don’t even know what’s going on in the NFL because they aren’t even paying attention to it.
One more thought… when and if the NFL falls, it will happen very quickly. Their cost structure is such that they have massive labor and infrastructure costs. Those costs are fixed, or the most part, because the labor costs are weighted to the batter players and you can’t run a team with fewer than 11 people – at the bare minimum. Realistically speaking, something around 35 players is probably the minimum to still put on an entertaining professional entertainment product. On the other side of the ledger, much of their revenue is tied to the massive broadcast deals – many of which are being paid by broadcasters who are struggling themselves. If the value of those deals collapse, the dominoes will fall quickly and NFL revenue with them. With a rigid cost structure, the NFL will not be able to adapt quickly enough and will enter bankruptcy rapidly to get out of the employment contracts.