An odd thing happened to the National Football League this season: millions of people stopped watching the games on television. The sagging numbers were a curiosity at first, but by midseason the press was running stories filled with ominous verbs. Ratings were plummeting, or in free fall, or collapsing. Things got so bad, Advertising Age reported, that the networks were forced to offer their advertisers free airtime to make up for the missing viewers. All told, regular-season television ratings were down eight per cent from the previous year, according to ESPN, and off about ten per cent from the league’s peak, in 2013. That year, Americans were showing such a seemingly insatiable appetite for the sport that Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, called for more games to be added to the regular-season schedule. Yet just three years later the league appeared to be in retreat.
What was happening? Everyone had an explanation. Some said it was the referees, who were blowing calls and spoiling the games. Or it was the networks, which were showing too many commercials. One line of argument suggested that, because the teams were employing increasingly younger players to save money, the level of play was suffering. Or maybe the viewership numbers weren’t accounting for cord-cutters, who were streaming games online. Or were millennials too busy watching Netflix? Maybe everyone simply missed Peyton Manning, who retired last year.
The most popular argument—the one favored by the N.F.L. itself—involved politics. League executives argued that the Presidential campaign was drawing viewers away. The ratings, they predicted, would rebound after Election Day. And they did, thanks in large part to a popular slate of games on Thanksgiving and a large number of prime-time games featuring the resurgent Dallas Cowboys, long known as “America’s team.” But as the Web site Awful Announcing, among others, has pointed out, ratings in the second half of a season are always higher than in the first—and the N.F.L.’s strong second-half numbers this year were not enough to erase its rough start.
Still, even if the election wasn’t really to blame, the ideas and divisions that Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s campaigns laid bare seeped into fans’ discussions—and complaints—about the N.F.L. Some conservative fans argued that Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco’s quarterback, and the other players who were protesting during the national anthem had driven flag-loving Americans away. Others said that the sport had been softened to appease squeamish fans. Liberals, meanwhile, suggested that fans might finally have been turned off by the brutality of the game, and the N.F.L.’s slow response to the concussion crisis. There was talk that basketball, with its “young, diverse and tech savvy” fans, would one day usurp football as the national sport.
This politicization produced its share of incongruous moments and odd allies. The liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg called Kaepernick’s protest “dumb and disrespectful.” (She later apologized.) On live television the night before the election, Trump read a letter of support he’d received from Bill Belichick, the head coach of the Patriots—a no-nonsense guy whom you’d expect to kick a player off his team for tweeting about politics. “You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter,” Trump said, reading the note. “Your leadership is amazing.” Suddenly, the N.F.L.’s big tent—where all the players look more or less alike under their helmets, and fans find common cause in matching jerseys and face paint—felt claustrophobic. An article on Bleacher Report stated that the Buffalo Bills locker room had been roiled by arguments over the election—especially after the team’s head coach at the time, Rex Ryan, spoke at a Trump rally. “Some of the African-American players on the team weren’t happy about Rex doing that,” an unnamed player said. Meanwhile, Trump supporters on the team were wary of speaking their minds, lest they be judged as racist.
Last Sunday afternoon’s game between the Cowboys and the Packers was, according to Nielsen, the highest-rated television program of any kind since last year’s Super Bowl, and the most-watched divisional playoff game in twenty years. Much of that success has to do with the fact that both teams are among the best draws in the league, but two things are clear: football is still the most popular thing on television, and a good game can draw as many viewers as ever.
Sunday’s game turned on a play of nearly miraculous physicality: the Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, got his team into last-second field-goal range with a mad scramble and an off-balance throw across his body, sending the ball into the hands of his tight end, whose toes just managed to stay in bounds as he made the catch. The whole scene—complicated maneuvers paired with exceptional athleticism—was football at its best.
But then, after the Packers kicked their winning field goal and the final whistle blew, we were back in our present cultural moment. The conservative news site Town Hall trumpeted the game’s big ratings as a rebuke to football’s critics, including the actress Meryl Streep. At the Golden Globes earlier this month, Streep had been honored with a lifetime-achievement award, and had used the occasion to speak out against Trump—but in so doing had also drawn a stark cultural line. “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners,” she said. “If you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” After the game, Town Hall’s headline read, “Oh Really, Meryl? Packers/Cowboys Game Blew Away Golden Globes in the Ratings.” The story noted that “football is A-OK with ordinary, non-Hollywood Americans.”
The political arguments about the N.F.L.’s ratings, like all the other arguments about them, remain essentially unverifiable. With such a small sample size—just a few seasons—it is also unclear whether the N.F.L.’s numbers are truly in meaningful decline, especially in the context of eroding viewership of live TV across the board. In many people’s estimation, including advertisers’, live football broadcasts remain one of the few audience draws in this attention-divided age. As Goodell noted, in November, the league’s prime-time ratings increased by twenty-six per cent during the previous decade, while viewership of other programming in that time slot decreased by thirty-six per cent. This season, after the networks gave away free time to placate advertisers, they covered their losses by selling remaining ad slots during football games for even higher prices. Fans may have spent a season arguing about all the ways in which they believe pro football is broken, but it remains one of the few commonly shared entertainments the country has left.