What can the NFL do to reverse this trend?
By Zach Pinti
"Williams is the running back," Al Michaels states, laying the foundation for one of the most memorable plays in NFL history. "The ball is snapped. Play action. Aaand Manning's going to heave one. ..."
On a frigid, evening in late November 2014, with the snow whipping wildly outside, Al's rich tenor speaks to a student's living room, right off-campus from SUNY Fredonia. The 60-inch, high-definition display reflects off about 50 metal beer cans cloaking the coffee table in the center of the room. Busch, Keystone, Natty Ice, Bud Light and every drainage-flavored-vomit-water alcoholic beverage in between is strewn across the table. Several Gatorade bottle spitters are sprinkled amongst the cans.
But the taste of the beer doesn't matter to the eight young men circling the coffee table, eyes glued to the television. They sip away jubilantly, buzzed from a day of drinking and football. Every school week leads up to Sunday, when they can sit back, drink beer and talk shit till their heart's content.
The Sunday night game is a true treat, and not just because these fans are usually at their peak drunkenness. Without a rooting interest, this game provides fans with a chance to just enjoy the spectacle that is American football. These fans bask in the top-notch visuals that NBC's "Sunday Night Football" crew provides. They hang on every word that expert orators Michaels and Chris Collinsworth have to offer. These fans have no reason to watch this game other than for pure entertainment.
As Michaels and Collinsworth commentate Odell Beckham Jr.'s breakout moment in the NFL two years ago (a one-handed reach-back catch, with defenders draped all over him), the living room in Fredonia erupts in whoops of shock and awe. To this day, I can't remember a moment where I enjoyed football any more.
That night embodied everything the NFL had to offer. It was a fantastic game down to the end, when Dez Bryant caught a touchdown with a minute to go, sealing a win for the Cowboys.
Unfortunately for the NFL, things have taken a turn for the worse over the past couple years. Fans aren't watching football this way anymore. And no one is really sure why.
Although, the NFL is still tops amongst professional sports in TV ratings, the 2016 football season has seen a massive drop-off in ratings from a season ago. Look at the NFL's Sunday night and Monday night games - the NFL's cash cows. People are tuning in about 18 percent less than they did last year, according to Sports Media Watch. The ratings drop for the Thursday night game is even more abysmal.
Every football fan and their dog has an opinion for this rating plummet.
"I think the ratings drop is due to the issue of (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the recent discoveries surrounding that," says Kevin Scagnelli, one of the eight college students watching that Cowboys-Giants game in 2014. "It's changing the game, because of the penalties players get and the refs just aren't letting them play the game."
"I think (Commissioner) Roger Goodell is at the center of the ratings drop," says Tyler Davis, yet another of those students. "He's been behind the 8-ball as far as injuries go. He's had too many social issue missteps and he has shown an inability to rule consistently or transparently. I have the NFL Sunday Ticket and don't watch games on Sundays."
From most accounts, the NFL viewership plummet seems to be caused by a perfect storm of three converging factors.
Tackle football has the highest rate of injury amongst mainstream sports with a whopping 18.8 injuries per 100 participants, per this American Sports Data study. A lot of emphasis has been put on concussions. A 2009 study out of the University of Michigan found ex-NFL players over age 50 were diagnosed with dementia at a rate five times the national average.
That's just brain damage.
In a sport where someone is being hit on every play, the amount of debilitating, season-ending injuries to ligaments and tendons is staggering.
That doesn't include the day-to-day injuries that pile up for players. In this 2013 Washington Post article, several NFL and ex-NFL players describe the culture revolving around the use of opioids and other painkillers.
This rash of injuries has led to the departure of several superstars in the NFL, such as Calvin Johnson and Patrick Willis. These players have the caliber of talent that would headline a Sunday night game. Instead, they have retired from the league at the age of 30 due to nagging injuries.
The sport itself is flawed when players that only play 16 games a year (compared to other professional sports leagues that play 80-plus games a year) are getting hurt at this kind of clip.
Lack of Star Power and Mediocre Teams
So, with some stars like Willis, Johnson and Peyton Manning retiring, and others like Adrian Peterson and Ben Roethlisberger being injured for extended periods of time, and others like Tom Brady and LeVeon Bell receiving suspensions, where is the star power coming from?
Unfortunately, the NFL and NFLPA (player's association) have negotiated a salary cap that spreads the amount of headline-worthy talent amongst 32 teams.
Thus, there are very few super teams. Take this year, for example. The team with the best record, the Dallas Cowboys, is winning with a rookie quarterback and rookie running back leading the way. That is unprecedented.
In a league where there are arguably eight-10 truly elite quarterbacks, there is very little chance that you will have two of those guys facing off on a Sunday or Monday night matchup. Instead, quarterbacks like Andy Dalton and Eli Manning go head to head like we saw this past Monday. The only competition in that game was to see who would throw more interceptions.
Officiating and Celebration Penalties
The league has made it a point of cracking down on celebration penalties this year. Players can receive flags or fines for such acts as dunking the ball on the goal posts, dancing, waving, hugging, falling or anything that can even remotely be seen as taunting, like this Terrell Pryor play from earlier this season.
Players like Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco used to draw fans by their antics alone. Nowadays, players like Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown are condemned for even dancing.
And with more and more stars leaving the league, these restrictions on personality are bringing the dawn of a new era in NFL player - an era where every player acts the same and there is no discernable difference from athlete to athlete.
The NFL must overhaul the way they treat injuries and celebrations in the league, if they have any hope of reversing this ratings trend. If they don't, Sunday nights in a living room in Fredonia will be spent watching "The Walking Dead" rather than "Sunday Night Football" for years to come.