It may have been a blip, explained as much by the must-watch presidential debates as by some wholesale turn away from football. Or, decades from now, 2016 could be remembered as the season fans started falling out of love with the NFL.
TV ratings declined 8 percent this year, with the presidential election partly, but not solely, to blame. Many of the league's highest-profile contests were boring blowouts, including eight of the 10 playoff games leading to Sunday's Super Bowl between the Patriots and Falcons.
Two NFL teams abandoned fan bases in St. Louis and San Diego in favor of their original home, Los Angeles, where neither team had played for decades. And the Raiders are considering leaving Oakland for Las Vegas , which, for all its renown as America's gambling capital, has never supported its own big-league team.
A key segment of fantasy football, as big a driver of NFL growth as anything in recent years, saw its massive numbers plateau. According to Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, entry fees for daily fantasy games increased by 4 percent in 2016, compared to 222 percent the year before, as several states explored the legality of what some perceive as gambling.
All this was piled on top of ongoing narratives about concussions and their effect on players, a domestic-violence problem that hasn't abated, Colin Kaepernick's national-anthem protests and the leadership of a commissioner, Roger Goodell, who is often portrayed as heavy-handed and clueless on some of the league's most pressing problems. Exhibit A: "Deflategate," which led to the four-game suspension of arguably the league's best-known player, Tom Brady.
Brady will close the season going for his fifth Super Bowl ring in a game that will draw high ratings thanks to the decades-long hold the NFL has held over American sports fans. That the infatuation will last indefinitely, however, may no longer be a given. Baseball, boxing and horse racing once consumed the American public, but they don't anymore.
"You've got bad games, (concussions) and drugs, and a declining interest in the game in general," said Orin Starn, a Duke professor who studies sports in society. "When you throw in this welfare for billionaires with these stadium shakedowns, you wonder at what point the good will of 'Joe NFL Fan' is going to dissipate and people are going to lose interest in the NFL."
One big question: Does the average fan even matter anymore in the NFL's math?
The Rams and Chargers each moved out of cities where they'd played for decades — unable to strike deals in their existing homes, and with the lure of a $2.6 billion stadium being funded by Rams owner Stan Kroenke too enticing to ignore. Luxury boxes and ancillary revenue from attractions adjacent to the stadium will help pay some of the bills. A bundle of TV contracts worth nearly $40 billion through 2022 will bankroll the rest.
Actual fans? The Chargers clearly don't need them too badly. While Kroenke's palace is under construction, they're willing to play in a 30,000-seat soccer venue near downtown LA that is smaller than two-thirds of the stadiums in college football's Mountain West Conference.
"You look at that, and on some level, there is some assumption that they take fans for granted," said Eric Simons, author of "The Secret Lives of Sports Fans." ''There's this idea that fans will follow or that fans don't matter. That they'll sell out their boxes to big corporations no matter where they go."
During his state-of-the-league news conference Wednesday, Goodell spelled out no fewer than four tweaks the NFL is considering to decrease the amount of dead time during games. Changing the instant replay protocol, shortening breaks between scores and the ensuing kickoffs and repackaging commercial breaks are among the possibilities. What he can't control is making the games themselves competitive. Average score of this year's playoff games: 32-17.
"What we're trying to do is make our ... games as exciting and as action-packed as possible," Goodell said.
In building new stadiums and retrofitting old ones, the league has acknowledged, on some level, that the game itself is no longer enough to keep fans in the stands engaged. TVs on seatbacks and improved internet connections are all part of the reality of 21st-century fandom.
But in the NFL's case, that also speaks to the reality that fantasy football drives a huge segment of its current growth: In many cases, fans are every bit as interested in the performance of the players they drafted as of the players wearing the jersey of the team they grew up rooting for.
It didn't help the fantasy industry when a DraftKings employee won $350,000 in a FanDuel contest in 2015 — leading to trust issues for the two largest daily fantasy companies, which had gone largely unregulated.
Peter Schoenke, president of rotowire.com, which churns out millions of bits of information for fantasy players, said he's optimistic that fantasy will rebound.
"I think this year, a lot of people got thrown off their rhythm. They were watching the debates, (ticked) off about Kaepernick," Schoenke said. "It threw a big chunk of people off. I think next year, it could settle back down."
There may be something to the presidential election year audience drop off, ESPN reported.
Television ratings were down 11 percent for NFL games this year, but they were down 10 percent in 2000 (Bush vs. Gore) and 6 percent in 1996 (Clinton vs. Dole).
At stake is a business worth nearly $13 billion that, in trying to increase its global footprint, has brought three games to London and one to Mexico, all of which were international hits.
It also brought football back to Los Angeles, times 2, and could be moving the Raider Nation to the desert.
"When you lose people in cities, lose people for entertainment reasons, lose people who identify with certain teams and because there's this weird mercenary element to it all, it can be a problem," Simons said. "You've also got a replacement, in the NBA, that's at its most-entertaining moment in decades. All that can be a real threat, and you have to be careful, or you can go the way of boxing."
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