On the eve of its marquee event, Super Bowl LII, the NFL is losing its casual fans at an alarming rate and it has nothing to do with anthem protests, columnist J. Scott Butherus writes.
I have a confession to make. I haven’t watched a pro football game in its entirety this entire season.
With the exception of last year’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and Falcons, in all of its dumpster fire glory, I can say the same about last season. If I’m being honest, it has been three or four years since I’ve sat down on the couch, or a barstool, with the sole purpose of watching that specific game. If we are talking about actually going to a stadium, it’s been even longer. I haven’t been to a Tampa Bay Bucs game whether I was being paid to watch it or not in over eight years.
That’s not to say I haven’t seen any NFL action these past few years. I’ll sometimes put on a game for background noise. There’s the ubiquitous televisions airing in the background of the various bars, grills and breweries I like to frequent. I still follow the games to a certain extent. As a veteran journalist in this part of Florida, I have lots of friends and former colleagues who still cover the Bucs and the league in general. I like to read their reporting, follow their discussions on social media and tune in for their TV and radio appearances. I do it more to support them than the team itself. Of course there is the fantasy football aspect and sometimes I’ll pay attention to a game if it has a direct impact on my team.
But when it comes to actually watching the games themselves with an actual interest, I can’t do it anymore and haven’t been able to for a while. For myriad reasons. Apparently, I’m not the only one in the country to feel that way. According to regular season viewership numbers, the NFL lost nearly 10 percent of its audience this season. It was the second straight season of an 8 percent or more drop and the lowest overall ratings in over a decade.
I’m not the only one whose interest turned to indifference and found a better way to spend my Sundays — and even Thursdays and occasional Saturdays.
A relationship in decline
It probably started with those late-2000’s Buccaneer teams. They were painful to watch with their neverending chains of three-and-out drives. The press box spread was really the only thing to get excited about, especially when Steve Duemig and Al Keck would battle it out to be the first in line for the bananas foster. I got paid to be there for the home games, mostly to mock the Bucs and their fans on the pregame tailgate show but I rarely watched them on the road. When I left Tampa in 2011 for another newspaper job down south, I pretty much left any fealty toward the team behind.
I still had an interest in the sport as a whole. I was one of the most recognizable faces in the media covering high school football in Southwest Florida. I frequently found myself interviewing NFL players both current and retired for any number of reasons. But when it came to sitting down on the couch with a beer and some pizza and wings and making a day out of watching the NFL, those days got fewer and further between. There were so many better ways to occupy my time.
This carried over to watching games live in-person, despite having a son who is entering the age where going to sporting events is one of his favorite things to do now. I really don’t feel like exposing him to the inevitable obnoxious fan, with their mullet and Zubaz pants, who are somehow on their seventh Budweiser despite coming into the stadium trashed, that likes to scream racial slurs at the black quarterback. I just can’t do it.
The league turned me off with the constant bickering over public stadium funding and when the team owners didn’t get what they wanted, they would just abandon their fanbase and move to a locale that fed into their attitudes of entitlement. I feel your pain Rams fans. Or Chargers fans. Or Raiders fans. You all have every right to burn those jerseys and start watching hockey. I don’t blame you. I didn’t like how those same teams wouldn’t even show loyalty to their own players either. I hate the phrase “it’s a business” that seems to get trotted out every time a player gets injured and cut. In this line of work you get to know the players as people. With families. Families that have to pack up their entire livelihood and move across country to hook on with another team, or, if they are still new to the league, a spot on a practice squad.
The No Fun League
I hated watching games with a yellow flag flying across my screen every other play. It exhausted me emotionally to get excited after seeing a beautiful, athletic play only to have it overturned because the ball rotated half an inch when the player hit the ground with a 280-pound linebacker hanging on their back. There is no joy in seeing something in the moment anymore. I can catch it later, repeated ad nauseam, on the highlights shows, on every social media feed and embedded in every story for the next week. If it’s really spectacular, someone will probably even make a meme out of it for me.
In fact, I can’t stand any of the rules that suck all the fun out of the game. I want to see obnoxious end zone dances. I want to see in-game interviews with truth and emotion. I want to see guys get laid out and knocked stupid. I want blood. And that just makes me want to watch games less because I know the damage the game inflicts on its players and I feel a bit guilty for promoting it. It is only a matter of time before someone dies at he 40-yard line from blunt force trauma, right in front of their family and friends. I don’t particularly want to see that in real time and in 4K HD.
We can see the long-term harm as well. How many former players are going to point the shotgun at their hearts so that the autopsy can show just how screwed up their brains had become?
Most of all I hate seeing the Patriots in the Super Bowl every year. I tuned in to the AFC title game for a bit just to see how fellow UCF alum Blake Bortles would embarrass the legacy of Daunte Culpepper. Instead I saw a questionable pass interference call in New England’s favor that set up a gimme touchdown right before the half. Say what you will but it is hard to deny that NFL referees have a way of selectively enforcing ambiguous rules.
Doth protest protests too much
The one thing that hasn’t affected my decision to forego games has been the players protesting during the anthem. I tend to support anyone, athlete or not, who uses their platform to support and advocate for equal rights, human dignity and common decency, which, when you strip away the pretense of patriotism in the situation, is what Colin Kaepernick and other players are doing. Any one that tells you that the kneeling during the flag is the sole reason why the NFL’s popularity is in a free fall is either lying or grandstanding. In a recent study performed by OZY Media, 33 percent of those surveyed said that they were actively boycotting the NFL season. Of those, 32 percent said that they were doing so to support President Donald Trump and his condemnation of players kneeling during the national anthem. More telling is that 34 percent responded that the reason they no longer watch games was either in solidarity with the players kneeling, or in support of Kaepernick.
Just last month, Vince McMahon announced that the XFL was coming back despite being an absolute failure the first time around. The new iteration of his league is marketing itself specifically to those fans who were turned off of the NFL because of those protests. I’m sure it’ll be enough to pack stadiums around the country because contrived patriotic gestures always make up for plain bad football.
I mean, I get it. Sports has always been a part of our national identity. But when I look at the NFL in its current state, I see capitalism run amok at the hands of uncaring billionaires. I see those same billionaires profiting on the backs of their employees, who, unless they are one of the chosen few, get chewed up and exploited. I see a rigged system. I see a poor product wrapped in shiny packaging being sold to consumers who will continue to buy everything they have to sell because the color matches all the jerseys they’ve already spent good money on. The saddest part is that I can’t tell if the NFL has abandoned all of the values that we once held dear as a nation, or if it has become a perfect mirror for what we have become.
More than likely, most of you will be watching a football game this weekend. I’m sure it will be a great game right up until Tom Brady gets that game-winning drive attempt prolonged with a phantom defensive holding call.
Me? If I’m being honest, I think I’m going to take my son fishing.
The weather is supposed to be great.
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