What Kind Of Future Should America's Favorite Spectator Sport Expect?

Nov 22, 2017
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ELISE HU, HOST:

There are three NFL games on the schedule for tomorrow, a Thanksgiving tradition that millions of people will watch. And try as they might, fans can't hide from the fact that the NFL is in the midst of a season filled with more controversy than usual. President Trump continues to assail players protesting during the national anthem. The inherent violence of the game has left key players injured. And as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, it's all raising new questions about the future of America's favorite spectator sport.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: NFL waters are never calm. It's the nature of a volatile game played by men at risk every play. But this season is roiling the waters even more. For every highlight...

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: Now he throws downfield, reaching up - Baldwin makes a catch. It's on the 40, 30...

GOLDMAN: ...There have been players protesting and hearing about it.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Booing).

GOLDMAN: For every moment of violent ballet...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There we go. There we go. There we go. There we go. There we go.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whew. There we go.

GOLDMAN: ...There's been just violence.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: Would have been a first down, and Rodgers is hurt.

GOLDMAN: Star players like Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers and New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. have been carted off the field with broken bones. Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott was suspended because of domestic violence allegations. And of course concussion is recognized as a constant, part of the game every season. It is, in the words of veteran sportscaster Bob Costas, football's existential issue.

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BOB COSTAS: This game destroys people's brains - not everyone but a substantial number.

GOLDMAN: Speaking this month at the same symposium, sports journalist Tony Kornheiser added to what Costas said with a bleak forecast for the future. The NFL, he said, may go the way of horse racing and boxing. They once dominated the American sports landscape.

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TONY KORNHEISER: It's not going to happen this year. It's not going to happen in five years or 10 years. But if they don't find a way to make it safe - and we don't see how they will - as great as it is, as much fun as it is, the game's not going to be around.

GOLDMAN: Is a slow exit beginning with a second straight year of declining TV ratings? On a conference call this week, NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said ratings are down 5 to 6 percent from last season. Ticket sales are down, too.

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JOE LOCKHART: We're not looking at a precipitous drop here that has a particular reason around it. But you know, it is something that we watch very closely.

GOLDMAN: I asked the NFL if there was someone I could talk to about strategy going forward, strategy to ensure the NFL's future viability now being called into question. The league didn't respond. But there are indications of forward thinking. For the past six years, the NFL has been partners with Whistle Sports. It's a company that creates and distributes sports content and targets 13- to 34-year-olds, a next generation of sports consumers already consuming differently. They watch sports on multiple screens at the same time - TV, phones, laptops. And, says Whistle Sports creator Jeff Urban, they don't care as much about sports news and scores.

JEFF URBAN: But we care about, how do you bring great stories to life or bring personalities from the NFL or take the helmet off and really bring a sense of humor and accessibility in a way that we can do it?

GOLDMAN: Dwindling TV ratings may tell one story about the NFL. But a joint survey by Whistle and The Nielsen Company tells another. The survey found for younger fans the favorite sport to follow is American football.

URBAN: The passion for the sport maybe isn't wavering. I think that the kinds of passion that people are demonstrating for the sport just might be different.

GOLDMAN: That paints a bright future for the game. Of course evolving concussion research may spell a different, darker outcome. But for now, the NFL chugs along, hoping another Thanksgiving feast of football leaves fans full but still wanting more. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CINNAMON CHASERS' "LUV DELUXE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.