We’re four games into the NFL season, and the usual trends have continued: television ratings are up, even for meaningless preseason games and regular season blowouts; media coverage is as extensive and subservient as always, and 32 cities are buzzing every week with football talk, no matter if that city is Baltimore or Buffalo. The Super Bowl will likely continue to break viewing records as it becomes more and more of a national holiday, and the 18 game schedule seems more and more like a reality. Nothing to be afraid of, right? Maybe, but then again maybe not. Now don’t get me wrong, the NFL will be alive and kicking for the foreseeable future, but there is cause for concern in the long term based on a few things:
The finances: Even with the large sums of money that they’re raking in right now, NFL owners have cause for concern. You see, the whole system is based on a house of cards. Most owners are fielding teams that play in stadiums they didn’t have to pay the full cost for; many didn’t have to pay anything at all. And that’s just the beginning; they often get a piece of the action on non-football events at the same stadiums (concerts, other sporting events, etc.) that they don’t have to pay for. They’re also raking in millions upon millions in television money that isn’t dependent on the success of their individual team. And merchandising proceeds from jerseys, hats, etc. that they don’t make themselves. That’s free money. The only money they have to earn is the live gate at the stadium on game day.
If the free money gets jeopardized in any way, then they’re screwed. Could that happen? Probably not, but maybe. If the next go round of new stadium construction isn’t picked up by the cities, which could happen if the economic conditions don’t improve dramatically, then the owners themselves would have to finance new buildings. The television money, seemingly bulletproof as long as the ratings stay where they are, could be shaky if the television networks continue to lose total audience share year to year. Without the subsidies that come from public stadium financing, revenue sharing, and television contracts, the league would be in an unsustainable position unless it slashed costs drastically.
The lockout: Now to be honest, I’m not expecting this to happen. But if it does, and it lasts a whole year, then it could be trouble. Work stoppages, especially those that go on for prolonged periods of time, always hurt the sport that goes through them. Fans get pissed off at the sight of millionaires fighting billionaires when times are good; in a world with 10 percent unemployment and foreclosures through the roof it could be a whole lot worse. And there will always be those who find something else to do with their time when their isn’t any football on. But you better believe that some fans will not come back once they’ve gone away. And if the media runs with things the way they did with the NBA (don’t hold your breath on that, by the way) then NFL players won’t be looking so great in the public eye. And that wold be a lot of trouble.
The parents: Not the parents of NFL players, but the NFL fans who are parents. In every story about the concussion problems former players are facing, there’s a quote from a diehard NFL fan who says they won’t let their kids play football because of the physical threat to their child’s well being. I have a son, and I’ll tell you right now he isn’t playing. After what I’ve read on concussions and how easily they’re caused, I would consider it irresponsible to subject him to that. Am I hypocritical for watching something I wouldn’t let my son play? Maybe. But I’m not alone here, and we could be looking at an eventual drying up of the talent pool. Look at boxing in America; what used to be a diverse talent pool has shrunken down significantly. Few Americans participate in it now, largely because safer outlets for athletic competition have been found. Boxing was once the biggest game in town as far as American sports go; now it’s an afterthought. Don’t think the same thing can’t happen in football. If enough parents decide they’d rather have kids with bad knees from playing basketball than bad brains from playing football, you’ll see a major shift. And that would be curtains.