Friday, March 2, 2012

Downfall of the NFL? Not for a long time

Underneath all the layers of hoopla about the NFL draft, an interesting storyline is brewing about the future of pro football.

Concussions were a big topic this past season, and some, including FOX analyst Troy Aikman, wonder if the violence of the sport will lead to a downfall in the popularity of the No. 1 pro league in the United States.

Aikman told the Los Angeles Times that the NFL should be careful with how it handles concussions, and that it might be over-saturating the TV schedule. Those two factors could impact the league in years to come, he said.

"The long-term visibility, to me anyway, is somewhat in question as far as what this game is going to look like 20 years from now," Aikman told the Times.

He continued: "I believe, and this is my opinion, that at some point football is not going to be the No. 1 sport. You talk about the ebbs and flows of what's popular and what's not. At some point, the TV ratings are not going to be there."

As a Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame quarterback, Aikman has a lot of cache to discuss league affairs. But I'm going to disagree anyway.

The NFL is fueled by  gambling and alcohol.

-- As long as there are people driving up the ratings by watching out-of-market games into the fourth quarter because they have money on it ...

-- As long as there are fantasy football players doing the same ...

-- As long people drink before, during and after games ...

-- As long as beer companies use that money to buy advertising ...

-- As long as TV networks use the ad money to buy rights to the games they need because the NFL is one of the only ratings guarantees left in network television ...

... the NFL will have consistent yearly revenue in billions of dollars.

With that scenario in place, there will always be players willing to sacrifice their bodies to earn the hundreds of millions of dollars available in salaries each season.

Is it possible that America's appetite for the NFL will wane? Of course it can happen. In the mid-20th century, baseball, boxing and horse racing were among the biggest sports in the U.S. Today, there are no significant American heavyweight boxers. Horse racing is popular for nine minutes a year. And the World Series loses to the NFL in the TV ratings except for the two cities the Fall Classic is being played in.

It's difficult to see that happening to the NFL in the near future, though. It's so powerful that other sports schedule around it for fear of their ratings and attendance getting smashed. How can the NFL lose its standing if no one else is willing to put up a fight?

So what would it take to bring the NFL down to No. 2?

Aikman has a point with the expanded TV schedule. If it continues to spread games over Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, then they might seem more like everyday occurrences and not special events. That wouldn't be enough, though.

Neither would continued or increased concussions. But hits to the head might lead to a decreased talent pool.

It would have to start with a hit similar to the one Browns quarterback Colt McCoy took from the Steelers' James Harrison, but in the Super Bowl, with 111 million people watching.

Furthermore, it would have to happen to a star player like a quarterback or running back, and it would have to keep that player out through the beginning of the next season, similar to situation Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins faced.

If concussions were in the news eight months, participation in youth leagues in some areas of the country could begin to drop with that one hit in the Super Bowl and its aftermath being a direct cause.

But don’t expect the NFL to roll over and accept all the negative publicity concussions are bringing. The league will be sure to publicize the work it’s doing to improve safety.

The hit McCoy took? Yes, it was violent, even gruesome.

Is that going to stop you from watching the Browns next season? The TV ratings and attendance figures say no.

And that's why the NFL isn't going anywhere for a long time.

- Howard Primer


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