Does the NFL Understand Its Audience?

Does the NFL Understand Its Audience?

New York Jets fan Fireman Ed cheers during the game against the Cleveland Browns at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 13, 2015, in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

SourceJeff Zelevansky/Getty

Why you should care

Because the 2017 rule changes suggest that the NFL is out of touch with fans.

By now you’ve probably heard that the NFL experienced a drop in viewership from 2015 to 2016 — to the tune of 9 percent through the regular season, or a little more than 1 million viewers, according to Nielsen and MoffettNathanson.

But the question isn’t necessarily how the NFL can win those viewers back; it’s whether the league even knows why they watch in the first place.

There are plenty of variables inherent in TV broadcasting the NFL can’t change, like presidential election debates and long-suffering baseball teams making World Series bids. They’re all competing for prime-time eyeballs in an era in which the way we consume these products is changing. But the NFL still controls the tenets of the game of football itself, and in that sense, the league appears unable or unwilling to deliver a product that fans find truly satisfying.

The NFL will want people to think it cares. But the truth is the league puts out its product and knows that every year hundreds of millions will watch.

Mike Freeman, veteran NFL writer

“The NFL doesn’t care about its audience. It really doesn’t,” says Mike Freeman, veteran NFL scribe and the author of Two Minute Warning: How Concussions, Crime and Controversy Could Kill the NFL (And What the League Can Do to Survive). “The NFL will want people to think it cares. But the truth is the league puts out its product and knows that every year hundreds of millions will watch.”

Why do we watch football, and what has made the NFL king among the four major sports leagues for decades? One aspect is the big personalities. The same players the league hit with celebration penalties — such as Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, who paid thousands of dollars in fines for, among other things, displaying a “Riverdance” routine and performing CPR on the ball after scoring — are the ones fans want to see most.

The NFL voted new rule changes into effect in spring 2017, and on the surface it looked like the league was trying to give players more leeway in their celebrations. “Touchdown celebrations: snow angels, group demonstrations and more are back!” exclaimed league commissioner Roger Goodell in a letter to fans detailing changes to the league’s celebration policy. But the new rules will still prohibit celebrations like those from Washington cornerback Josh Norman, whose trademark move is to shoot an imaginary bow and arrow after he scores.

There’s some hypocrisy inherent in that level of adjudication, according to Freeman. “The NFL is still too rigid and even hypocritical on this issue,” he says. “Josh Norman shoots an arrow after he makes a big play. That’s still illegal.” And yet, “the Buccaneers simulate shooting cannons after a touchdown, and the Patriots have minutemen simulate shooting rifles.”

In addition to tweaking its stance on player celebrations, the league also shortened the overtime period from 15 minutes of sudden-death play to 10. It did this under the guise of player safety, but one thing the change will almost certainly result in is more tied games. Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones crunched the numbers and discovered that since 2012, when the league last tweaked its overtime rules, the results of 26.5 percent of games would have been different with a 10-minute overtime instead of a 15-minute one. That’s significant.

Sure, some fans will love the excitement of games close enough to tie; as Freeman argues, they “truly test coaches.” But other fans — not to mention fantasy football players and sports bettors — will undoubtedly find those results frustrating. “I do not want to see more tied games,” longtime NFL viewer Curt Cozad says. “Ties do not provide sports ‘closure.’”

As a fan, Cozad feels that the NFL doesn’t understand, or even care, about what he wants to see on TV. “I’m not sure the NFL understands anything but money in the big picture,” he says. If the decline in viewership the NFL saw between the 2015 and ’16 seasons continues, the league is going to have to take a hard look at the product it puts out.

In the short term, how can the league make fixes that will satisfy audiences? One area is officiating. Freeman suggests fewer holding calls. “Seems simple enough, but they totally disrupt the game and viewing experience,” he says. With a swifter game pace, combined with loosening the reins on player celebrations, the league can give the viewers more of what they want to see.

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