There’s really no two ways about it, the past few years have not been good for the NFL. Sure, the league made money, but a longstanding PR crisis never quite seemed to go away. Just when the league thought they put it all behind them, it would flare up again. Suddenly, fans were burning jerseys instead of buying tickets. Interest fell. Viewership fell. Merchandise sales fell.
And the worst news, all that was happening for the second year in a row. Coming into this season, things did not look like they had improved. An agreement between the teams and the league stalled, and ostracized players filed lawsuits. Fans were still hotly divided, and both TV pundits and politicians never missed a chance to weigh in and build up base support.
The outlook was understandably shaky going into this season, but league officials kept their fingers crossed, even as they failed to advance any real solutions, either to the protest issue or their PR crisis. But, a bit surprisingly, there’s some light at the end of this very long tunnel. So far this season, ratings are up. They’re only up 2 percent, but that’s a lot better than continuing to fall.
So, how did the league manage to pull out a win even while the issue that created the PR mess continues to simmer behind the scenes? They stopped trying to “figure out” the protest debacle, and, instead, they figured out a way to make the games more exciting.
Over the past few years, NFL excitement has waned. With injuries to players with top star power, even teams in big markets were not showing very much on the field. Since pro sports thrives as much on drama and story as it does on scores and highlights, when the story lagged, so did fan interest.
Cue Super Bowl LII, Philadelphia vs. New England. The Patriots were coming off one of the biggest come-from-behind victories in Super Bowl history. They had a guy who is arguably the best QB ever leading the team, and a head coach that seemed invincible. Philly had a good defense and a Cinderella backup QB who was due to be brought back down to earth. Instead, the Eagles won in what ended up being one of the most entertaining Super Bowls in recent memory. Fans were cheering again… and they weren’t talking about kneeling or anthems.
That trend of entertaining football continued into this season. The league changed some rules ostensibly to protect QBs and other offensive players, but what they really wanted was more scoring. They got it. Scoring has been electric this year, with many games coming right down to the last second, and more than a few being decided in overtime. Fans are flocking back to experience what they loved about football… the drama and the story that had been drowned out by yelling about protests.
So, while it’s a small margin, ratings are up, and they show signs of continuing to improve as the season continues. Does that mean all is forgiven? For some fans, no. But the longer the league can keep touchdowns – and not kneel downs – in the headlines, the better their prospects will be.