As the Super Bowl approaches in about a week, we ran across this interesting Statista report. While Americans love the NFL, change is looming down the road. And while baseball is often referred to as “America’s favorite pastime,” the NFL has long surpassed the MLB as the nation’s favorite professional sports league.
For many reasons, primarily due to its better suitability for television, football flew by baseball as Americans’ favorite sport to watch in the 1960s and hasn’t changed since. In addition, baseball is on the verge of being surpassed by basketball as well, with younger audiences preferring the action-packed NBA over what many young viewers consider the dragging pace of a three-hour baseball game.
According to a poll conducted by Morning Consult in July 2019, the NFL is the #1 league to follow for 33% of U.S. adults, followed by the MLB (16%) and the NBA (10%). However, the NFL should be taking a look down the road because its popularity is fading with younger audiences, while the NBA, the NHL and MLS are increasing. Among 18 to 22-year-olds, the youngest cohort (Generation Z) in the survey, only 23% picked the NFL as their favorite league, with the NBA a not-too-distant second (19%).
Cord-cutting and streaming is a cause.
Part of the shift comes from cord-cutting, as fewer young people tune in for live broadcasts of games on major networks and opt instead to stream games online. In addition, the transitory nature of social media and its effect on the collective U.S. attention span also better suit sports like basketball and soccer, with their easy-to-share highlight reels and the brilliance of individual stars. Social media has also elevated the profiles of those athletes, who are spending most of the game on the field of play and unlike football or baseball stars aren’t partially concealed by helmets or time in the dugout.
Coming into the 2018 season, the NFL has seen its TV ratings fall by about 17 percent since the 2015 season, according to Nielsen average TV viewership figures. Younger fans prioritizing other leagues could exacerbate the decline.
A 2017 Magna Global study conducted for SportsBusiness Journal underscored the advantage the NBA and MLS have with younger fans, citing Nielsen statistics. The median age of MLS and NBA viewers in 2016 was 40 and 42, respectively, compared with a median age of 50 for the NFL viewer and 57 for MLB. The study also found that the median age of MLB and NFL viewers both went up by four years compared to 2006, versus 1- and 2-year increases for the median MLS and NBA viewers.
According to Morning Consult, there’s “the other elephant in the room regarding the league’s long-term viability.” Emerging science on the effects of repeated concussions is already draining the NFL’s potential talent pool, with more parents refusing to let their children play the game.
Per the report there’s a correlation between playing it and wanting to watch it or follow it at the college or pro level, so the NFL needs to work toward doing everything they can to make parents feel comfortable letting their kids play organized football (and protect the safety of its own players).
These reasons suggest the NFL should be taking a harder look at its future. According to the report, “the NFL has been so dominant for so long” that the league doesn’t see the latest dip as anything more “than a bump in the road, but they need to change their model.”
Could quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes be the answer to attracting younger audiences to the NFL?
In a recent article by Adam Stites of SBNation.com, (“Why the next generation of star NFL quarterbacks is way more fun than the last”), there’s hope down the road for the NFL. He noted that the NFL of the 21st century had been getting pretty stale, especially at the quarterback position. In 15 of the last 16 Super Bowls, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger was one of the starters:
“Those three quarterbacks, along with Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers were all drafted between 1998 and 2004. And all six of them are in the top eight on the all-time passing yards list. Five of those six are still in the NFL. They represent a golden age of passing that will have a lasting impact on the record books, one led by a rather homogenous group of quarterbacks. They mostly looked the same, talked the same, and largely played football the same way. They’re all traditional pocket passers, who for the most part, played, or still play, the position by the book.
That era is ending now. Luckily for the football watching world, the next generation of stars is here and it’s something entirely different. The young group of quarterbacks drafted in the last four years is brimming with personality and rewriting the way we think about how the position can be played.”
Per the article, the NFL is in good hands with young quarterbacks like Super Bowl bound Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson. And there are other sensational young quarterbacks in the NFL who could soon earn a spot on this list.
Even if they never get there, for the first time in a long time, there’s a variety of personalities and styles at the quarterback position. That’s a new phenomenon. And because they’re so entertaining to watch, and they are nearer in age, the Gen Z youth are taking notice.
P.S. GO CHIEFS!!!