The new year begins with more of the same for the National Football League. A season marred by poor ratings continued last weekend in its first round of playoffs, with Nielsen reporting more bad news for the league. Although the contest between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants saw a 1% increase in viewership compared to last year, the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans affair (a snooze fest) was flat and the other two games were down about 5 million viewers each. At best, last weekend’s ratings performance was a mixed bag of results, at worst it was a harbinger for a failing NFL brand with no reasons for optimism in sight.
It would be fair to say that the NFL season hasn’t gone well in terms of viewership, with standout contests drawing lots of eyes but the vast majority of games seeing declining numbers. Although ratings rebounded during the latter part of the regular season, it was only a few successful teams like the suddenly “great”-again “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys, that accounted for much of this. It could be pointed out that the over-saturation of games during the weekdays as well as 2016 being an election year as possible reasons for the overall decline in ratings. However last weekend contests, such as the Seattle Seahawks 26-6 blowout of the Detroit Lions, point to a much simpler reason: the product is bad.
In the end, success is driven by the product on the field. No amount of marketing and hype can hide the fact that the vast majority of teams are mediocre and that poor, unexciting play is no longer the exception, but the rule. Some of the mediocrity is attributable to league expansion, but 2002 was the last time a franchise was added. It’s more telling that teams’ better and more significant players are on injured reserve as the season winds down and the playoffs begin (it looks like Seahawks’ Free Safety Earl Thomas and Packers’ Wide Receiver Jordy Nelson will be missing next weekend’s games). Recognizable stars are becoming less frequent, as injuries and non-guaranteed contracts continue a turn and burn policy in one of the most dangerous professional sports. According to the NFL Players Association, the current average career length is just 3.3 years.
Compare this to the resurgent success of Major League Baseball. MLB revenue and viewership is up because the product is good, with the 2016 playoffs and World Series being the freshest example. Arguably the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, combining for 176 title-free seasons, were two of the major drivers for the postseason success of MLB, but other factors have surely contributed to baseball’s resurgence, as baseball’s record $8 billion in revenue was reported the previous year.
The biggest factor is the fading specter of steroids. With Bud Selig, the baseball commissioner who presided over the steroid era, entering the Hall of Fame this year, as well as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens seeing their Hall of Fame vote totals greatly increase (both near 70% in publicly-made ballots), the pessimism of the juiced era seems to be softening as time moves further along. And, more importantly, as younger, “cleaner” players such as the Cubs’ Kris Bryant and Indians’ Francisco Lindor have begun to come into their own, the on-field product has become fresher and more exciting, with less emphasis on traditional stats and big boppers and more emphasis towards sabermetric-friendly players and athleticism.
The combination of exciting, “cleaner,” and athletic younger players and All-Star veterans such as Yoenis Cespedes and Zack Greinke (who have recently commanded larger, more player-friendly contracts) is producing a great, fan-friendly product. And in the end, it is the product on the field that is the biggest driver of success. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement is evidence that the owners recognize the rising power of players and their reluctance to rock the boat of the recent success of MLB. Although an international draft and and other team-friendly issues were bandied about during negotiations, the CBA remained much the same, with a few player-friendly benefits, like reworking the qualifying offer system for free agents, thrown in for good measure. This new found leverage among the players is in stark contrast to just a few years ago, when players such as Bonds and Clemens, as well as Alex Rodriguez, were demonized by teams and corporate owner-friendly media.
In professional sports, like in any business, it looks like success is built from the bottom up, with good, healthy players being the key. With the steroid era long and gone, it seems MLB has done a good job in recognizing this. It’s quite obvious, as fans continue to stop watching, that the NFL has not.