Much NFL reporting so far this fall has emphasized good and poor performances by well-known quarterbacks. Old Peyton Manning throwing for seven touchdowns in the first game of the year and out-passing his little brother, two-time Super Bowl–champion Eli, in the second. Young Robert Griffin III off to a bad start, with his Washington Redskins losing two games.
Yet, the most remarkable (and almost unnoticed) football event is this: The NFL is slowly losing popularity. NFL ticket sales have dropped every year since their peak in 2007. Television viewing is down. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, an average of 16.6 million viewers watched nationally televised, regular season NFL games in 2012—down five percent from the previous year. This downward trend carried into the 2013 preseason, where games received the lowest ratings in six years. Initial sales for Madden NFL 25, the latest installment in the Madden NFL video game series, were 40 percent lower than sales of last year’s edition.
Why is the top rung of football losing ground? Could be the economy, or the increasing popularity of soccer, or maybe the concussion controversy surrounding the sport: The NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement with former players in August, after the players accused the league of ignoring the dangers of concussions. While the NFL vehemently denies any wrongdoing, the link between football and severe head injuries is obvious to the public. Many former players suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Suicides by high-profile players suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brought the issue of football-related concussions into the public light.
These health concerns have led to fewer children playing tackle football. According to USA Football, participation in youth (3rd-4th grade) football dropped from 3 million to 2.8 million in 2012. In the short run that won’t make much difference in NFL fandom, but headlined failures of NFL players to be proper role models for youth might. Among the 30 off-season arrests: the New York Giants’ Michael Boley (child abuse), the Chicago Bears’ J’Marcus Webb (marijuana possession), the Detroit Lions’ Amari Spievey (assault), the Cleveland Browns’ Armonty Bryant (DUI), and the New England Patriots’ Aaron Hernandez (murder). Talk of “rampant” HGH-use by players further adds to the ethical concerns surrounding the game.
The NFL in response is trying to up its defense, but it’s also going on offense: Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to bring American football to Europe, with an NFL team potentially installed in England within the next decade. In September a Russian football team, the Moscow Black Storm, offered former Denver Broncos and New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow $1 million to play two games in a Russian league. If the NFL finds further trouble in the United States, international fans may sustain league revenue.