Never mind that the NFL’s ratings problems run deeper than players kneeling during the anthem, which barely eats more than a minute of a broadcast that lasts at minimum three hours. In some ways the league set itself up for failure by committing so completely over the past decade to the rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the latter of whom retired two seasons ago after helping the Denver Broncos to victory in Super Bowl 50. Two star QBs who could step into that breach, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Houston’s Deshaun Watson, are out with season-ending injuries. Thursday Night Football has proven to be a disastrous experiment, one that produces far more player injuries than actual entertainment. Meanwhile stories continue to emerge about the adverse effects football has on players’ long-term health. All of it makes the NFL that much more difficult to sit with.
Still, things could be worse for the NFL. It could be Nascar. A decade ago the sport emerged as an unlikely challenger to pro football’s small-screen primacy, attracting nearly 20 million viewers to the 2006 Daytona 500. But Nascar has lost more than 45% of its audience since then, according to Nielsen. What’s more, equally dismal live spectator figures have compelled some tracks to remove seats from their grandstands. Denny Hamlin, a star Nascar driver, has made his peace with this. “People with smartphones, they’re rewatching races in the back of their car going up the highway,” he said back in April. “You don’t have to attend these races anymore. You get such a good experience through your cellphone, so the way we measure attendance and we measure TV ratings and all that’s always skewed because we live in a different world now.”