Brain Dump: NFL Popularity – Supply, Demand, and What the Common Fan Cares About

This is going to be a bit of a brain dump, so please bear with me.

Over the past few years, the “NFL is on the way down” train has been building up steam in some circles.  However, I just don’t see it.  For me and for the people with whom I associate, the NFL is every bit as wondrous as it has ever been.

I was very excited for this past weekend, the first weekend of the NFL season.  I was just as excited as I was for every season dating back to the early ‘90s, when I was in elementary school.  Why do I get so excited?  It is basic supply and demand.

On February 5, 2017; the Patriots defeated the Falcons in Super Bowl LI.  That was the last real NFL game we got before the Pats and Chiefs opened the 2017 season on September 7.  Let’s compare this to other sports.  The Cubs finished off the Indians in the World Series on November 2, and the 2017 season opened on Sunday, April 2.  The Penguins won the Stanley Cup (against the Predators) on Sunday, June 11, and the 2017-8 season opens on Wednesday, October 4.  Meanwhile, the third installment of the Warriors/Cavs trilogy ended on Monday, June 12.  The 2017-8 NBA season begins on October 17.

Therefore, the NFL had a 7-month, 2-day stretch between seasons; MLB had a 5-month stretch; the NBA will have a 4-month, 5-day stretch; and the NHL will have a 3-month, 23-day stretch.  If we were to pretend that all these leagues ended their previous seasons on February 5 and then had their same offseason lengths, MLB would have resumed on July 5; the NBA would have resumed on June 9; and the NHL would have resumed on May 28.  Compare all those dates to the NFL’s September 7, and you can see how and why football fans are so desperate for football season come Week 1.  The supply of NFL games and NFL dates is so small compared to the supply totals in the other sports.

Furthermore, the NFL is still the only major sports league whose teams play only once a week.  Every Sunday, fans are again desperate for football because it has been a full week since the past football Sunday.  Obviously, the other three main sports leagues do not have this trait.  Even if you are a rabid baseball, hockey, or basketball fan; I cannot imagine that fans are ever counting down the days (or in baseball’s case, “hours”) until their team’s next game.  Basic economics says that, as the supply of a good decreases, the value of each individual example of that good increases.  Naturally, each football game is more valuable to sports fans than is a game from one of the other sports.

Many of you are probably reading this and thinking, “This is so basic, Mike.  Why are you even discussing it?”  I bring it up to combat the conversations about NFL ratings being down and the possible causes of this.  First off, it is not catastrophic to me that ratings are down.  People watch football on many different forms of media these days – TV, iPad, phone, etc.  Some people DVR games so that they can watch the games in an hour and a half.  Many people still go to bars, where many heads watch each TV.  The typical fan now has RedZone, and many fans watch nothing but that from 1:00 until 7:45 every Sunday.  Many fans can now monitor “GameCenters” while they are out apple-picking or doing other autumnal activities.  Some people spend all Sunday bouncing back and forth between binge-watching a show and watching football.  Some people bounce back and forth between football and CNN/MSNBC/FOXNews. Some people never actively seek NFL action but end up watching countless highlights that others post on social media.

Wes Mantooth and I bring up all these things because I think it is entirely possible that we have not yet mastered how to register accurate TV ratings in a world with so many forms of media.  I know that I talk every bit as much football with my friends and family as I ever have.  Also, with so many types of pools and fantasy games accessible to us, I (and many other people) spend a lot of time during the week making picks, making fantasy moves, and reading up on NFL happenings.  All that speaks well of the NFL’s popularity.  Now, it’s time for my rant against sports media.  Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs…

While I discount the accuracy of modern-day ratings, many people nevertheless try to attribute reasons to the lower ratings.  Last year, people surmised that Americans were obsessed with the presidential race and therefore turned to cable-news channels instead of football.  That is one hypothesis, but it does not explain ratings figures for after the election or for the Thursday-night game in Week 1 this year.  I’ll now turn my brain-dump toward the guy formerly known as “The Sports Guy”.  For a good chunk of this millennium, I worshipped Bill Simmons and agreed with everything he said.  However, that gravy train for Bill left the station a few years back.  In the decade of the “Double-Zeroes” (Seriously, is that what we call the previous decade?  Have we made that official?  I am fine either way, but we need to come up with a ruling.), Bill Simmons (aka “The Sports Guy”) was truly the voice of the common fan.  He would write about the same stuff that I would talk about with my friends.  In turn, we would quote him regularly when watching sports.  In fact, my college friends and I probably referenced the “Doug Christie jersey” daily during our junior year (2002-3).

However, in 2014, it really hit me that he was losing touch with the common fan.  Heading into Week 2, we now had the information about the despicable acts of domestic violence committed by Greg Hardy, Ray Rice (with video), and Adrian Peterson.  I remember Simmons saying at that time that he almost forgot that there were games that weekend, because of all the domestic-violence stuff going on.  He said the women he knew were finding it hard to watch the NFL, and he had also begun his anti-Roger Goodell crusade because of his changing Ray Rice’s suspension from 2 games to 16 games.

Meanwhile, everyone with whom I watch and talk football was still super-excited about Week 2 of the NFL.  Make no mistake – we all thought (and think) that Rice’s, Peterson’s, and Hardy’s actions were deplorable, but a) they had all been suspended (and, unlike Bill, we didn’t really care that Goodell had changed Rice’s suspension from the initial ruling…we felt that the end – a full-year suspension – justified the means) and b) we knew that, in a league of 2000 players, there are always going to be a few bad people and horrible personal decisions.  I’m sure that there were plenty of bad people and horrible decisions by players before 2014 too.  The fact remains that, in any group of 2000 people, there will be some bad apples who do really bad things.  One can only hope that people are punished for their misdeeds, and the NFL did punish the three afore-mentioned players (more so than our judicial system punished them….so again, I am not sure why the NFL always ends up taking the most heat).  Meanwhile, for us common fans, football is a weekend escape.  We want to root for people we have never met and never will meet.  As crazy as it might sound to someone from another planet, this type of behavior brings us together.  I am actually lucky to love my job.  I am one of the few people alive who can say that.  However, most people hate their jobs.  They want to spend their time escaping to the magical world of NFL football and not focusing on the off-the-field stuff.

Anyway, back to Bill Simmons.  That comment by Bill was when I realized that he was losing touch with common fans.  The most ironic thing is that ESPN ultimately fired Bill Simmons in May of 2015, and then both sides seemingly decided to lose touch even more with common fans.  As has been discussed plenty on this website, ESPN has been obsessed with C**** K*********, and Bill Simmons also cited his saga on Friday as a potential reason for the NFL’s waning popularity.  Furthermore, Simmons cited the CTE/concussion issue being a reason for waning popularity.  This is something else that I think avoids the mind of a common fan.  I never understand why people are so hard on the NFL for CTE/concussions.  Yes, the NFL hid some research, but was the NFL really keeping a dark, dirty secret?  Haven’t we known for decades that football causes mental issues later in life?  I feel like I knew this in 3rd grade.  Watch one game with the world’s greatest athletes running full speed at each other, and you realize that there is going to be some long-term mental damage.  It’s an occupational hazard, and NFL players enter the profession knowing this.  Football is a very dangerous game, and we have all always known that.  By this logic, do we expect coal mines or fire departments to perform extensive research to inform us if breathing in large amounts of smoke can harm us later in life?  I seem to think not.  Some things are just obvious.  Mind you, the NFL should be taking care of the health of its retired players.  That’s a given, and that’s a different story.  I just think it’s silly that anyone – such as Bill Simmons –  acts like we needed the NFL itself to tell us how dangerous the game is.

But I digress….I just spent several paragraphs talking about stuff that I say that I don’t talk about.  I’ll stop being a hypocrite now.  When September rolls around, I am pumped for football every year.  I am pumped for the 1:00 games, where I can madly watch 7-9 games with countless fantasy/pool implications.  I can watch the Giants and hope they make a Super Bowl run.  I can get together with friends that I don’t see that often outside of football season.  I have conversation pieces with family and friends from September through February.  I know that every single game plays a big role in the standings.  I hear voices of announcers who form the soundtrack of football season.  I love every second of football season.  I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Actually, I would.  I would add a week to the season (so it is 18 weeks) and give every team a second bye.  Then, I would require that teams playing on Thursday nights have a bye the previous week.  While I acknowledged the occupational hazard in the previous paragraph, four days is simply not enough time for proper recovery.  Also, if money were not an issue, I would eliminate Sunday Night Football.  I love TNF and MNF, but, by Sunday night, I am tired and not always as eager to watch a solo game (when there were several games at a time earlier in the day).  Plus, it is good to spend Sunday night with the football-hating family members of your family.

All that aside, I love football season, and anybody who cites my afore-mentioned reasons for the NFL’s declining popularity has lost touch with the common fan.

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