- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Bristow, Virginia, resident Monica Arrington-Miller and her family have been Washington Redskins season-ticket holders for 21 years — from the moment the franchise moved to FedEx Field in Landover. Before that, she and her father were on a waiting list for 24 years. As soon as she could walk, she remembers, she was a fan of the Burgundy-and-Gold.

But when the Redskins begin their season Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, Arrington-Miller won’t be watching.

“The political climate around what’s going on in the game is turning into something that’s just frustrating,” she said. “It no longer became a priority to watch the games.”

Arrington-Miller, a 45-year-old mother of six, still has four season tickets in her name — down from the eight she used to hold — but she sold all for this season on secondary sites.

As the NFL kicks off its opening weekend, perhaps the biggest objective for league executives at 345 Park Avenue in New York City this season is trying to recapture the attention of fans like Arrington-Miller.

Last year, the league’s television ratings fell another 9.7 percent — after dropping 8 percent in 2016. The two-year dip comes at a time when the NFL is dealing with controversy on several fronts, from player protests during the national anthem to a collusion case from the unemployed quarterback who started it all. On top of that, the NFL is entangled in an ongoing public-relations battle with President Trump and struggling to address concerns about the safety of the game.

Despite the woes, the NFL’s bottom line doesn’t seem to be taking a hit — yet. The league brought in $8 billion in revenue sharing in 2017, up 4.9 percent from 2016, according to public financial statements from the Green Bay Packers.

But the public’s view of the league is certainly darker than it used to be.

“The perception is the NFL is not in a position where it controls its own destiny,” said Jon Lewis, who runs Sports Media Watch, a website dedicated to analyzing the ins-and-outs of sports ratings. “The perception is the NFL is not able to control the narrative, not able to control what it’s players are doing. … The league has been trending in this direction for a while.”

Still biggest game in town

For all the debate about the NFL’s ratings decline — and how worried the league should be — the league wasn’t as impacted as the rest of television. In December 2017, Ad Age reported broadcast networks lost 16 percent of their viewership in 2017, while cable television was down 11 percent.

The television industry, as a whole, is in a battle to figure out how to deal with cord cutters, or people who have ditched their cable subscription.

Consuming habits, experts say, have changed.

Former Fox Sports senior vice president of programming, research and content strategy Patrick Crakes, who is now a media consultant, said the NFL’s reach across all platforms has largely remained the same as the past couple of years, but fans aren’t spending as much time tuning in. Viewers have more options in terms of entertainment, whether it’s streaming services like Netflix or social media platforms like Twitter.

Another factor, too, could be the increase of news consumption, which has increased since the 2016 election. Lewis said interest in politics has remained, particularly with Mr. Trump.

Experts say it’s hard to fully know how the debate around protests has affected ratings.

“At this point, it’s just impossible to argue that it had no role to play because it’s the dominant story in the league,” Lewis said. “And anytime you have a politician at the level as the president of the United States, it’s going to have some impact.

“Do I think it had the dominant impact? No, I don’t.”

But compared to the rest of the industry, the NFL is still “the biggest game in town,” said Robert Seidman, who runs the website Sports TV Ratings.

According to Nielsen, 37 of the year’s 50 highest-rated programs belonged to the league— and 20 in the top 30.

Need another example? Look no further than Saturday’s match between Michigan and Notre Dame, which was college football’s highest-rated game over opening weekend.

That drew 7.1 million viewers — the same number the NFL attracted for a Week 3 preseason matchup featuring the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys.

“TV advertising is a relative game,” Seidman said. “As long as you’re king of the hill, you’re still going to command a lot of money.”

No-win situation

So, if money and ratings aren’t really a problem, why does the league feel besieged?

On everything from how it handles domestic violence cases to player safety to former quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s anthem-kneeling social-justice protests, the league has faced withering, relentless criticism — from the press, from fans and from politicians on both sides of the aisle.

In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 54 percent of voters agreed kneeling to protest racial inequality during the national anthem is “not appropriate.” Dig further, and those numbers are sharply divided between parties, with 72 percent of Democrats calling the action “appropriate,” while 88 percent of Republicans disapprove.

That deep division between voters could make it hard for the NFL — which scrapped a plan earlier this year to ban protesting on the sidelines after the player’s union filed a grievance — to find a solution to keep both sides satisfied. Owners and players are currently negotiating a new policy.

Eric Schiffer, the chairman of the Los Angeles-based brand and crisis management firm, Reputation Management Consultants, said if the league forbids protesting to win back consumers, it could alienate players.

“At this juncture, there’s just not an easy way to solve this problem,” Schiffer said, “because they’ve dug themselves in so deep.”

The NFL must also deal with President Trump’s frequent criticisms. But Schiffer agrees with Redskins cornerback Josh Norman and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in how the league should handle the president’s jibes: ignore them.

“To get into a fray with the president, it’s likely to extend the news cycle,” he said.

Paranoid survival

At a league-hosted preview event last week, Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief and media business officer, addressed the league’s declining ratings — telling reporters there are factors the NFL can’t control and there are factors it can.

“There’s no fear, but a healthy paranoia,” he said, according to Deadline. “Only the paranoid survive.”

Perhaps the best gauge to measure if declining ratings will affect the NFL’s profitability will be to judge the league’s next few deals for broadcasting rights — all of which are set to expire in the next few years.

The NFL’s agreement with ESPN for “Monday Night Football” is up in 2021, while the networks’ rights expire in 2022. If fewer people are watching — and say, advertising revenue decreases — would the networks still be willing to fork over billions of dollars?

Crakes said don’t expect the networks to suddenly put away their checkbooks.

“Anyone who’s trying to present a television network with sports, the NFL remains the most strategic property to acquire,” he said, noting Fox’s $3.3 billion acquisition of Thursday Night Football in January.

In the meantime, opinions are split on if ratings will increase in 2018. Mr. Seidman said “until the trend of the past couple of years reverses,” he wouldn’t bet against viewership falling another 5-10 percent.

Lewis floated the possibility that viewership could rise if teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers stay healthy. He pointed out the Cowboys were mediocre last season and so many prominent high-profile players like Aaron Rodgers being hurt likely affected ratings, as well.

Lewis compared to the NFL’s current situation to the post-Michael Jordan NBA in the early 2000s. He said the NBA’s ratings dipped because of controversies like the “Malice in the Palace,” the Ron Artest brawl that spilled into the stands, and a lack of talent.

But the NBA eventually benefitted from LeBron James’ rise, a boon of other elite stars and high-profile franchises like the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers being at the top of the sport.

Lewis said the NFL can use the same boost.

“Ultimately, that’s what the league will need — big personalities and big teams,” he said. “That will determine whether ratings are up this year, for sure.”

So, if the Redskins are 7-2 heading into the last stretch of the season with the playoffs in sight, will season-ticket holder Arrington-Miller tune back in?

No, she said.

“I’ve played fantasy football every year for like, seven years,” Arrington-Miller said. “I’m not even playing fantasy this year because it requires I watch.”

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