Now that we have a full season of ratings to postulate on, you can prepare yourself for a slate of various think pieces on America’s interest
(apparently waning) in professional football. While there are many reasons for the decline in overall interest or engagement—bad on-field product, games spread across three and sometimes four nights a week, the slow-and-getting-slower pace of play, the rising number of cord-cutting households—I have a theory that the NFL’s decline has its roots in the Faustian bargain it made roughly fifteen years ago with fantasy football.
Tens of millions of Americans now play some sort of fantasy football, be it full-season slates with friends, officemates, and family, or the daily games whose commercials we thankfully no longer see every minute of every day.
With its ever-metastasizing sideshow of specialized TV programs and so-called experts, fantasy football is more ubiquitous than ever. However, rooting for individual players on an arbitrarily selected digital roster is a wholly different form of fandom than cheering for a specific franchise, and that difference has become more consequential than anyone initially recognized.
The problem is this: What happens when some of fantasy football’s most valuable commodities are worthless to their “owners”? What happens when we have a season without Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Andrew Luck, Dalvin Cook, and so many others that are valuable (often in real American betting dollars) to so many football fans?
The answer, apparently, is that people stop watching.
While the Nixonian league office would never concede the point, in recent years the sport has been tailored to suit the whims of fantasy aficionados. Rules changes have encouraged the evolution of the uptempo passing game, which has resulted in stuffed stat lines and massive upticks in passing yardage. Defenders can’t hit receivers high anymore. But they can’t hit them low either. There are myriad more ways in which the quarterback can’t be tackled than he can.
These changes were all instituted under the guise of “player safety,” which makes perfect sense until you remember that the league has been pushing for an eighteen-game regular season for years, has gone to great lengths to quell the evidence behind concussion science, and regularly allows players back on the field after they’ve very obviously suffered serious head trauma
The NFL’s concern for the safety of players is about as deep as its regard for the United States military
. It wants more points scored to keep casual fans tuned in on Sunday and Monday and Thursday and sometimes Saturday.
Two decades ago, there was no way of knowing that technology and timing would come together to create the massive cottage industry that is fantasy football. And yet the NFL, typically drunk on self-regard, treated this windfall as though it had planned it. Gifted with millions of additional “fans,” the league office behaved as though this was a sustainable new normal, negotiating TV deals and changing the game to appeal to a come-lately crowd of low-stakes gamblers.
Many argue that fantasy football has made the sport more exciting, more engaging, and more watchable to the eye of a layperson. I take the opposing view, that it has led to a more violent version of flag football, or a less violent version of actual football. No matter your perspective, the evolution is impossible to ignore, and the calculus seems more and more to have been made in error.
It turns out that much of the fantasy crowd doesn’t love football; they love wagering. They are uninterested in the fundamentals that the sport’s popularity was built upon. Many fantasy-invested viewers would no more sit through an old-school, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust gridiron battle then they would volunteer for elective oral surgery. What the league understood too late is that this segment of the fanbase might stay glued to a 45–42 shootout but is quickly off to its next port of call when a game becomes a chess match rather than a track meet.
Having misread the expectations of its new audience, the league has clumsily struggled to accommodate them.
The end result is a muddled, hybrid product. The rules changes have made football no less violent and injuries no less common, leaving a wake of walking wounded over the course of an NFL season. Gimmicky offenses have migrated from the college game, to mixed effect. Defenses have begun adjusting to the point where, despite the emphasis on offense, scoring was down league-wide this past season. So here we have a league that has hooked millions of casual fans with the implied promise of an exciting product that is simply not delivering on that agreement.
As the NFL wraps up its worst year in decades, plausible explanations are multiple if not manifold. The litany is truly ugly: games across too many damn days, the glacial pace of telecasts, bungling of domestic violence issues, never quite knowing what a catch is, and so on. But when the history of the sport’s decline is written, the illusory nature of the fantasy boomlet will be in the first paragraph.
They forgot who they were, lost in a dream.