The NFL owners met last week in Houston at their quarterly owner’s meeting. One of the key items on the agenda was the league’s “unusual and precipitous drop in TV ratings”. According to Jarrett Bell of “USA TODAY” NFL games were down 11% for the first six weeks of the season when compared to last year. Should the NFL ratings decline be blamed on the national election or is it a sign of deeper problems?

Owner’s Comments
Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons said: “It’s very muddied water right now…a lot of commotion right now. It’s pretty hard to figure out what is real and what’s not.” The owner of the Houston Texans said: “Obviously, the debates have had a big impact.” Some people have suggested the protests surrounding the playing of the national anthem may be contributing to the ratings decline. Jim Irsay, owner of the Colts franchise echoed that position. Mr. Bell makes the following point: “It’s striking that the anthem protests, connected to other factors, are viewed as a variable that seemingly runs deeper than other crises. The NFL took tremendous PR hits with domestic violence issues and concerns about the effects of concussions. But those serious issues seemingly didn’t have a major effect on the ratings.”

Poor Management
I have been critical of the NFL owners and the NFL commissioner in the past, and I am again. Good managers always look inward first. The NFL owners are looking everywhere but inward. And the commissioner is quiet on the issue.

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks said last year: “Just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way…when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always turns on you.” Cuban was referencing the NFL’s expansion of its Thursday night telecasts thus giving them three weekly prime time exposures [Thursday, Sunday, and Monday].

Look Inward First
If the owners and the commissioner look inward they will also see a dramatic change in the product they are putting out. A televised NFL game is unwatchable given the following:
– more ads than plays; a typical NFL game has 125 plays and more than 125 ads. Every stoppage in play prompts a commercial break. When a touchdown is scored in an NFL game the network breaks to commercials for about 2 minutes. Then there is a kickoff which usually produces a touch back and then they take another commercial break of 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. They will also run sponsor billboards, pop ups and drop ins after the breaks. Thus a viewer can be exposed to almost a 5 minute interruption after a touchdown. This is a challenge for even the most loyal fans. It certainly is an obstacle for the viewer not watching their local team on a Thursday, Sunday or Monday evening.
– there are repeated stoppages in the game for replay reviews, injuries and time outs. Each of these produce another 2 minute ad break.
– there is no continuity to an NFL game. Commercials run every time the ball changes hands. In a low scoring defensive game the breaks seem endless.
– the quality of play has decreased. The NFL has become a quarterback driven league and only about half of the 32 teams have a proven winner at the quarterback position. The Jets have 4 quarterbacks on their roster and none inspire confidence to the Jets fan base let alone the casual viewer.

Weak Formula for Success
The NFL has created an extremely weak formula: too many games, lack of star power, and a program format that makes its inferior product unwatchable except by the most loyal of fans willing to endure almost anything to view “their team”. The commissioner and the owners have themselves to blame for this mess. Mark Cuban predicts the NFL is 10 years away from implosion. Given the current product, strategy and leadership I believe he may be correct in his prediction.