The two most successful sports leagues in the world, bringing in billions of dollars in revenue, the biggest corporate sponsors and mammoth audiences every game day, are now sharing an altogether different experience: The National Football League and the English Premier League are seeing startling, double-digital declines in television viewership this season.
Viewership through the first seven weeks of the N.F.L. season is down by 12 percent in the United States, while the audiences for E.P.L. soccer matches this season, which began in August, are down nearly 20 percent in Britain.
All the trends that drove viewers away from other programs on broadcast television in recent years, including cord-cutting and DVRs, never punished the N.F.L. and the Premier League in the same way. Fans — lots and lots of them — did not seem willing to look away.
They are now, in numbers that are alarming for the leagues, which have grown used to fans tuning in to their games in good times and bad, and for the networks, some of which have spent 10-figure sums for the rights to broadcast them. Viewership for N.F.L. games on CBS on Thursday nights, on NBC on Sunday nights and on ESPN on Monday nights is down by as much as 21 percent.Everything -- from the presidential election season, to too many games being broadcast, to absence of Tom Brady to begin the season, to distracted viewers during the games -- is considered.
Sure, the presidential election year makes a difference. And we can't ignore the digitalization of our lives -- Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, smartphones, Tinder, Google, on and on. But I think the main impetus to go cold turkey from the national opiate is the loss of competitiveness in the first month, month and a half, of the season. This synced with the shift in consciousness already underway -- the loss in faith in the mainstream; the digitalization of our attention span -- to deliver up the double-digit ratings drop.
Will the NFL rebound? It could. But, as I argue below, since U.S. global hegemony and the potency of the NFL opiate are linked, it probably won't.
The seventh Sunday of the National Football League's 2016 season concluded with an overtime defensive struggle between the Seahawks and Cardinals. The game ended in a rare tie, 6-6.
This kind of nailbiter is more rare now than in recent years past. Most of the games I have seen this season have been deplorable. Before last night, I can think of only a few good games all year (though with Week 6's Thursday Night match-up between the Broncos and the Chargers, it appears a shift back to competitiveness is underway).
This is unusual, and worthy of remark. I came across this opening line from a story on the NFL's latest domestic violence snafu, "N.F.L. Shows It Doesn’t Really Care About Domestic Violence," written by the excellent reporter Juliet Macur: "Television ratings for the N.F.L. are down 11 percent this season, and league officials have been grasping for possible explanations."
If anything, excellent competition has been the norm in the National Football League for more than a decade. Such was not always the case. In the 1970s and 1980s blow-outs were common. The obvious explanation for the significant ratings drop this year (one that doesn't include Kaepernick protesting white supremacy by taking a knee during the national anthem) is that the games have been lousy.
But, as I said, with Week 6, things seem to have snapped back to the competitiveness we have grown accustomed to, with exciting, close games like the Rams and the Lions, the Falcons and the Seahawks, and the Colts and the Texans.
The NFL is the premiere entertainment product in the United States. Hollywood is not what it used to be. Old media is giving way to the ubiquitous internet, and there is a scramble among corporate giants to gobble up as much content as possible.
The NFL remains the one true opiate of the masses. For that opiate to lose its potency at a time of political tumult (Trump, Black Lives Matter, New Cold War) is auspicious.
What this portends -- and here I am being optimistic -- is some form of realignment. The U.S. unipolar world is over. (See Dilip Hiro's magisterial "American Power at the Crossroads: A Snapshot of a Multipolar World in Action.") The power elite lining up behind Hillary think that through confrontation the U.S. can maintain its monolithic status. This is clearly delusional. Most voters in the Western core, while possibly not able to explain this, nonetheless feel it in their bones. For the United States, based on the voluble new McCarthyism of Hillary and the Democratic Party, it appears to be either catastrophic direct conflict with Russia or an embarrassing about-face.
A third way would simply be the maintenance of the status quo where the U.S. unipolar world exists as a sort of kabuki, a fiction whereby American destroyers continue to travel in waters claimed by the Dragon in the South China Sea and the CIA continues to collude with Al Qaeda in the destruction of states, blowback be damned.
But the status quo cannot be maintained. That is what we are living through right now. That is our present tense.
Hillary chose to reboot McCarthyism to help her rancid old carcass across the finish line; it was either that or address directly the content of the WikiLeaks Podesta emails.
She is in a box now. She is going to have to retreat or escalate. And she is going to have to act with very little popular support.
Dilip Hiro thinks that U.S. global leadership will be unchallenged for decades to come. But this assumes that Europe doesn't continue to disintegrate, which should proceed rapidly in the next four years, particularly given the situation unfolding in Mosul. It also assumes stability in the American electorate. Hillary is about to ascend to the throne with the duopoly crumbling beneath her. No one can foresee how she will able to govern.
The U.S. needs it televisual opiate now more than ever, and early indications are it is not going to be there. Let the brave new world be born!