It’s no secret that the NFL’s ratings are down. The narrative is becoming ubiquitous both online and in print, and given the turmoil that the NFL is experiencing, it’s not really much of a surprise. However, contrary to what Roger Goodell might say in press conferences, it’s actually not all that complicated a matter. The viewership decline isn’t due to one problem in isolation. Many of the issues that have affected the ratings have shockingly simple solutions.
First, fix the rules. The NFL rulebook has undergone a number of changes recently, usually for one of three reasons. The first is that the league wants to move to a more pass-heavy game. This is why defensive pass interference calls have spiked so drastically in recent seasons.
Second, the league wants to move to a more family-friendly product, which has caused the increase in calls for unsportsmanlike conduct and excessive celebration. If you want to know why this is a bad idea, look to the WWE, which cleaned up its image and hasn’t had the same ratings since.
Third, the rules have changed to ostensibly increase player safety, which is the only noble reason for meddling by the NFL. For example, changes made to kickoffs, where it was discovered a disproportionate number of concussions occur, led to a drop in head injuries. However, when even someone like Richard Sherman, cornerback of the Seattle Seahawks, who probably knows NFL rules better than most officiating crews, rips the new regulations, there might be a problem.
Another sign there might be a problem? The recent Oakland-Tampa Bay game, during which the Raiders set a new record for penalties in a game with 23. The solution? Ditch the rules that attempt to engineer a new game designed for casual consumption and reinvent the refs.
The NFL does not employ refs full-time, in contrast to other major American sports, and it shows. The trigger-happy officials in recent years make a game already filled with stops and starts interminable. It makes for boring football, and it’s not the only thing the NFL does that leads to a bad product.
This season, there have been two ties, one coming during a primetime matchup. Beyond this, a number of games have been determined using the NFL’s ridiculous overtime system, which gives the team who wins the second coin toss an insane advantage.
The other major American sports leagues have policies in place that prevent ties except in the most extenuating of circumstances, so why doesn’t the NFL? It’s even more silly seeing that college and high school football use an overtime system that gives both teams a fair chance to score and prevents games from ending in a draw. Implementing this system would be easy and would remove one of the most frustrating aspects of the game, though not as frustrating as how the NFL has reacted to issues off the field.
The NFL’s response to social matters has been spineless, inconsistent and totally shameful. From the cynical “Salute to Service” initiative, which is functionally an excuse to create new (and more expensive) fan gear while the league congratulates itself, to the insane arbitrariness of punishments handed out to players—players who commit domestic violence are slapped on the wrist while players who smoke marijuana to deal with the pain they experience as part of the sport have their careers taken away—the league has no coherent stance on anything while at the same time trying to appear moral and upstanding. In reality, the league relies on its non-profit status in order to avoid paying taxes while demanding that state taxes buy teams new stadiums.
Of course, what conversation of the NFL would be complete without talking about its handling of the national anthem protests?
The league and Goodell have held just about every opinion it’s possible to have on activism within the league, from denouncing the players actions to mealy-mouthed praise. When the league botched its handling of the Ray Rice situation, women stopped watching. Now, the league has alienated both black and white viewers by its mishandling of the national anthem protests.
The solution to this is simple: fire Roger Goodell. The players don’t respect him, the owners trash him and the public hates him. His two public personas are ineffectual moron and domineering bully, both of which are harmful. The NFL can learn a lot from the NBA, who brought on Adam Silver to replace unpopular commissioner David Stern. Adam Silver was tested early when the Donald Sterling tapes were released and navigated the controversy with grace, proving himself as a leader in the process when he forced Sterling out of the NBA. Goodell has never dealt with a situation as deftly as Silver handled Sterling, and it shows that the league could find someone with more skill and tact than Goodell.
If the NFL wants to arrest its ratings slide, it needs to act quickly. As fewer and fewer kids play youth and high school football, the league has to feel the urgency of its situation. I’ve outlined a few suggestions, but it does go deeper. The NFL needs a culture change if it wants to survive in an America that might not have a place for it anymore.