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How the NFL stays so popular, despite its many scandals


Deshaun Watson of the Cleveland Browns signed autographs before a preseason game in late August.

By Kevin Draper


As it so often has, the NFL league office spent the offseason dealing with crises caused by its players, coaches and team owners.


Deshaun Watson, a star quarterback, was suspended and fined after two dozen women accused him of coercing them or behaving lewdly during massages. Britt Reid, a former position coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, is scheduled to plead guilty to driving while intoxicated in an incident that severely injured a child after Reid left the team’s practice facility. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Commanders, spent much of the summer on a yacht, seemingly dodging a subpoena to testify before a congressional committee that is still investigating his franchise for a toxic workplace.


As the NFL season kicks off this week, however, it is a good bet that these scandals — and many others from a troubling offseason — will receive little or no attention at games or on television. It is likely that the business of the NFL will remain as strong as ever.


“The NFL in particular can accommodate contradiction and scandal and seems to maybe not be impervious, but certainly is very good at deflecting it and recovering,” said Travis Vogan, a professor at the University of Iowa who researches sports and American culture. He said the NFL’s public relations strategy was to “individualize” scandals, but “the fact that it happens as often suggests that there is a systemic element to it.”


Television viewership for the NFL last season was its strongest in six years, even as most television programming around it craters in popularity. Last year television networks committed about $110 billion for the rights to show the NFL for the next decade, ensuring its financial success no matter what happens with viewership around the edges. The league is on track to meet Commissioner Roger Goodell’s goal of earning $25 billion in revenue annually in 2027.


“It is a freight train going down the tracks, and it is just gaining speed and gaining momentum each year,” Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said at a media event last week.


Among the incidents the league contended with this offseason:


— The NFL fined and suspended Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross after an investigation found he tampered, though it absolved him of accusations that he deliberately tried to lose games, saying he didn’t mean it when he suggested the idea to his coach.


— The Buffalo Bills released rookie punter Matt Araiza after he was accused of rape in a lawsuit, but only after they had already handed him the starting job despite some knowledge of the accusations.


— Three Black coaches accused the league of racial bias in an ongoing lawsuit.


— Henry Ruggs, a former Las Vegas Raiders first-round pick, has been charged with four felonies, including DUI resulting in death, after prosecutors said he killed Tina Tintor, 23, when he drove his car 156 mph and rear-ended her.


— New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara will go to trial this month on charges that he punched a man eight times at a nightclub the night before the Pro Bowl in February.


Considering the NFL’s enduring popularity despite these crises, it is temping to view the league as an unstoppable juggernaut.


But if you peer a bit into the future, the NFL’s continued dominance does not look nearly as certain. Not because fan or advertiser boycotts will lead to radical change, but because of health concerns, demographics and marketing challenges.


The player pipeline to the NFL is drying up, with fewer kids playing tackle football. In 2018, there were more than 100,000 fewer kids playing in high school than in 2008, a drop of almost 10%. The decrease in the number of younger children playing tackle football is even greater. After more than a decade of stories about the risk of concussions and head trauma from football, more and more parents say the sport is not appropriate for young people.


Football is still the most popular high school sport by far, but as the number of players shrinks and more of the country’s best athletes choose to play other sports, the quality of the NFL will eventually suffer


Perhaps NFL fans will someday turn away from the NFL because of the bad headlines it sometimes generates. But even now, the league is competing to hold its audience because it is challenged by more and more entertainment options. The league’s own marketing efforts signal that it believes it needs to expand beyond the traditional demographic of American men drinking beer on the couch on Sundays. NFL viewers are getting older on average, and for the next decade most NFL games will continue to be on traditional television despite the median viewer being almost 60.


The NFL has long looked abroad, scheduling games in Mexico and England to attract fans there. This year the NFL will play a regular-season game in Germany for the first time, and Goodell has broached the idea of games in South America.


The league is also increasingly marketing itself directly to women, trying to persuade those who might be casual fans — the league says almost half of Super Bowl viewers are women — to engage with the sport more fully. The sport is a harder sell if fans don’t believe the NFL is concerned about domestic violence or mistreatment of women by its players, coaches and owners.

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