I am a diehard football fan. When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s, I dreamt of being Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr or New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath. I played out the fantasy of leading my team to the Super Bowl countless times with my brother and our friends in my backyard and on the playgrounds in our neighborhood. I even had a short stint playing quarterback and defensive back in Pop Warner and middle school football before the realities of being 5-foot-8 and weighing 150 pounds led me to switch full-time to hockey. Nonetheless, I have remained a devoted fan of the gridiron for 50-plus years.
Growing up in the football crazy township of Penn Hills just outside of Pittsburgh during the heyday of the Pittsburgh Steelers, my friends and I knew all the stats and players, and we watched all the highlights from NFL Films. We fell in love with the inspirational music and the thundering, velvet voice of John Facenda. It was Facenda’s description of the famous 1967 Ice Bowl between Green Bay and Dallas that sent chills up my spine (and still does to this day) when he described the condition that day in Green Bay as “the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.” Facenda romanticized the game and turned our gridiron heroes into knights in shining armor.
Appropriately, this past Saturday evening my father and I watched the movie “Leatherheads” starring George Clooney and Renee Zellweger. It’s a comedy about the humble beginnings of professional football. I also watched the very emotional NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony. With NFL camps in full gear and the college season just around the corner, these two events started me thinking about where the sport of football is today and where it is headed in the future.
This year marks significant milestones in both professional and college football. It is the 100th year of NFL football and the 150th year of college football. Football continues to be the most popular and financially successful sport in America, and it would be easy to think that all is well, and the future is bright. While I certainly hope the sport that so many of us love is simply going through a few hiccups, there are those who believe the game as we know it may not survive the next 25 years.
I decided to delve into the internet and do a little research. While there are plenty of articles extolling the good health of the pro and college games, I was able to verify my own concerns by finding numerous articles that point out various chinks in the once impenetrable armor that is the sport of big-time football.
Here are just a few headlines:
The NFL Is Going to Implode Within the Next 10 Years, According to Mark Cuban by Chris Yuscavage, Complex.com. In the article Yuscavage quotes Cuban saying, “When pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered," Cuban said. "And they're getting hoggy. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I'm just telling you, when you got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns against you."
The NFL's Ratings Probably Will Continue To Decline by Jonathan Berr, Forbes. “According to ESPN, NFL ratings were down 9.7 percent during the 2017 regular season. If you don't care for percentages and would rather that news be converted to raw numbers, that means that on average 14.9 million people watched a typical game this season as opposed to 16.5 million at this time in 2016. That represents a drop of roughly 1.6 million people per contest.”
Death of NFL inevitable as middle class abandons the game by John Kass, Chicago Tribune. “Just four years ago, we had so many boys signing up for football, we had five teams at this fourth-grade level," says John Herrera, a dad, software engineer and football coach of the Wheaton Rams in the Bill George Youth Football League in the western suburbs of Chicago. "And from five teams of fourth-graders four years ago, what do we have now? One team. Just one."
According to VGChartz, Madden NFL football video games from EA Sports have seen steady declines in sales since their peak in 2015 when 1,619,736 units were sold in the first week of release. This past year saw sales drop by over 50 percent to 788,006. There could be several factors involved in this dip but suffice it to say kids have found a substitute for playing NFL games on their PlayStations and Xboxes.
Report Shows Continuing Drop in High School Football Players by Timothy Rapp, Bleacher Report. In his article, Rapp states that according to a survey from the California Interscholastic Federation, "football participation [in the state] actually decreased by 3.12 percent over the past year and about 10 percent over the past decade," per Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle.
College football attendance sees second-largest decline in history by Matt Bonesteel, Washington Post. Following the 2017 season, for the first time in history college football attendance had declined in four straight years, according to Bonesteel’s report. It dropped again in 2018. Since 2008, when a record 46,971 watched live college football games on average, attendance has declined 10.1 percent.
I hope the people charged with the future of the game will take this seriously.
The entertainment value of watching the games on TV has also suffered. Video replay continues to be a controversial distraction. This year the NFL is experimenting with instant replay on pass interference calls. What next? Holding calls on the line of scrimmage? Come on guys, simplify it. If there isn’t conclusive evidence within 30 seconds then the call on the field stands. Waiting five minutes for a call takes all the momentum from the action and bores the heck out of the fans.
The whole concussion issue aside, parents are leaning toward not allowing their kids to play more physical games, with football the lead among them. As the players have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, the number of serious injuries has increased as well. Lifelong ailments from back injuries to knee, shoulder and neck concerns haunt former players whether they stopped playing after high school, college, or professionally. Throw in the scare associated with concussions, and you can see why youth participation is declining.
In his recent book, “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times,” New York Times bestselling author Mark Leibovich points out the complexities of current status of pro football. On the one hand you have the doomsayers noting issues such as the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick and players kneeling during the national anthem, that the 2018 Super Bowl had the lowest ratings in nine seasons, and the highest number of reported concussions in six years. On the other hand, he points out the $3 billion contract that Fox signed to broadcast Thursday Night Football and that the disgraced owner of the Carolina Panthers, Jerry Richardson (forced to sell the team due to sexual harassment charges from employees), sold the team he bought in 1993 for $206 million for $2.2 billion. Leibovich asks in conclusion, “Is this the decline of Peak Football we are watching in still-massive numbers? We await the replay.”
With the new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon in the NFL, it will take real leadership to make sure that some of these potential challenges to the game will be dealt with in a reasonable manner. This is no time for a lockout or a strike.
Is the issue one of relatability when the players, coaches and owners are making sums of money that the average fan finds insulting and grotesque? The money we are paying college football coaches has reached ridiculous proportions. They are being paid four to seven times what the president of their university makes. Keeping up with the Joneses has us spending incredible amounts of money on facilities and amenities in a never-ending arms race. It simply doesn’t pass the common sense test. Check out Clemson’s football complex if you don’t believe me.
I must admit that my own viewing habits for pro football have slipped considerably. If the Steelers or Bills aren’t playing, then chances are I am not watching the NFL. I never used to miss a Monday Night broadcast and now it’s rare if I do watch a game. I used to spend every Saturday watching college football either in person or on TV. Now I don’t even go to all the Penn State home games or watch some of the lesser games on TV. If a fan as passionate and dedicated to football as I am is starting to lose interest, the question begs to be asked, are there more like me? Are there young kids who will never have that same dream of being the starting quarterback for a Super Bowl-winning team?
So, do we ignore the doomsayers and the negative Ned’s and simply brush off these challenges or is someone minding the store and keeping a better pulse of the health of the game? I certainly hope it’s the latter and that my own interest in the game can be renewed and sustained. I still love professional and collegiate football, but I am in a demographic that has always relished the sport. It’s the younger generations I worry about.
It is my sincere hope that the leadership in professional and collegiate football does not make the mistake of pretending all is well. If they ignore some of the signals, they will end up eventually having the same fate as Kodak, Sears, Circuit City, Toys “R” Us, or heavyweight boxing. Go ahead, try naming the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Not one of the fictitious ones from a Sylvester Stallone movie.
Let the debate begin. Is football in great shape and there is little to worry about? Or are we in a new era where we won’t recognize today’s game in as little as 25 years? Stay tuned.