Is This Peak NFL?

When a sports league doesn’t seem bothered by (1) Ray Rice beating up his wife, (2) the Washington team’s racist name, (3) racism and hazing of players in Miami, (4) a coverup of extreme homophobia by Vikings staff, and (5) a history of untreated concussions for generations of players, can anyone convince me that we aren’t at peak-NFL?

The State of Minnesota just subsidized a billion-dollar stadium (which I’m not entirely opposed to), but absent from the stadium debate was an analysis of what are the odds that the NFL is in a same or better market position 30 years from now (the length of the stadium bond) than it is now.

I don’t see any possible way that the NFL isn’t at it’s peak in popularity right now (unless it—implausibly—becomes an international sport). Where would future fan growth come from? On the flip-side, there are clearly huge categories of current marginal fans who could easily stop following football if the league continues to be such a scandal-magnet. I’m pretty sure that if even a small portion of currently-marginal fans stopped watching, the economics of many of the huge media and stadium deals would collapse.

Fans, Haters, and the In Between

Football has always had die hard fans and always had people who thought it was dumb. Most of its growth (from medium-sized pro sport to THE BIGGEST pro sport) in the past 20 years can be attributed to the attraction of marginal fans (probably mostly women, though I’m speculating) who have been drawn in large part by the crazy-good improvements in TV coverage of football. My theory is that a huge number of new/marginal fans don’t need too many more reasons to say meh.

I’m not predicting an imminent collapse. I’m just confused why anyone would make long-term economic predictions based on current/historic growth rates (especially without clearly articulating where that source of growth could possibly be).

Maybe the NFL Can Prevent Its Own Demise

Also, if you accept my premise, an alternate future could be that the NFL starts to see these trends (I think they’re currently pretty blind to it) and starts making different decisions on these issues in order to be more attractive to marginal fans.

If we assume that the NFL’s long-term growth prospects require adoption by developing countries, (1) the occasional game in London probably doesn’t move that plan forward much, and (2) that might not actually help the current economic dynamics of domestic media-rights and stadium deals.

Also, I’m super skeptical that a sport with no international history, expensive equipment requirements, and growing fears about chronic injuries, is likely to suddenly become popular in South America or Africa.

Scandals Ignite Passions, But the NFL’s Risk Doesn’t Depend on Your Politics

There are plenty of emotional, political, historical variables at play here. Lots of people love or hate sports. Lots of people think these “scandals” are devastating or just a bunch of politically-correct whining. My big question doesn’t really depend on any of those things in particular, but rather is a pure risk analysis: what are the chances we are at peak-NFL vs the chance that the NFL can sustain the long-term growth explicitly baked in to the economics of its media and stadium deals.

My hypothesis is that the odds of steady decline or an acute collapse in interest in the NFL are MUCH higher than the odds (used to justify most of it’s current economics) of continued sustained growth.

Some Risks Are Foreseeable, Some Risks Are Unforeseen

I think the concussion case is likely the biggest risk to the NFL, but whether it’s injury risks, player bad behavior, cultural/demographic exclusions on issues of race and sexual orientation, or something less foreseen (a Donald Sterling-like owner scandal, or a terror attack at a stadium, or technology changes that allow people to watch games in a way that doesn’t generate revenue for teams, or something else), my only point is that a bunch of these risks are non-trivial and don’t seem to ever be included in calculations or policy debates around the long-term economics of this sport in our society.

The NFL’s Risks Don’t Depend on Whether You Are Liberal or Conservative

I’ve conceded that the personal/emotional/social/political issues involved are complicated and that reasonable people can assess any of them in totally different ways.

My point has nothing to do with the qualities or actions of Priefer or Kluwe as individuals.

My point is that the controversy itself is one of many variables that could possibly combine to make enough marginal NFL lose interest that it’s current economic basis would be unsustainable.

Maybe Americans Just Thrive on Drama

If the American public loves drama (even of the occasionally-/regularly-offensive kind) then the NFL might be OK.

My sense is that the core marginal demographic (I will grossly over-generalize and use the shorthand “moms” to describe the group of people who are current fans but are most likely to stop being fans) decides that these things have gone (or eventually go) too far, the current stadium/media arrangements won’t be sustained just by drama-seeking core fans.

[This post is adapted from a series of comments I made earlier today on Facebook].

Featured image: “Football” by Kevin Dean is licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. The image has been cropped and filtered.

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