Why NFL ratings are plummeting: A two-part theory

Quite simply, televised football has a television problem and a football problem. The television problem is prominent yet simple. Fewer people are subscribing to pay TV, which means that ratings are declining for just about everything on cable and broadcast. To pick an example quite different from football: The audience for last weekend’s Grammys telecast declined by nearly 10 million, a stunning 30 percent drop in one year that is related to the fact that cord-cutting is accelerating, leaving fewer people (especially young people) with access to cable TV. Attention has shifted from pay TV to mobile devices, which aggregate football highlights, stats, and fantasy scores, allowing more fans to closely follow the sport without actually watching it live on television.

The football problem, though, is more complicated, in part because there are so many fan conjectures and politically motivated conspiracy theories competing for explanatory power. Are viewers turning away from football because of concussions? Players’ protests? Donald Trump’s poisoning the league with political tweets? Players having too much fun? Players not having enough fun? There isn’t much hard evidence to prove any of these hypotheses correct.

Instead there is evidence, sometimes circumstantial and often crystal clear, that football has suffered as its most popular players and teams have disappointed, in various ways.