It’s no secret that the NFL’s ratings have been slipping over the past few years. Despite there seemingly being more “fans” of this team or that team than ever before, ticket sales are down, merchandise sales are down and TV viewership is down. What’s the cause? There’s probably a few things to note…
WHEN YOU TRY TO PLAY BOTH SIDES, YOU ANGER BOTH SIDES
The NFL has been mired in a “kneeling” controversy lately. Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee last year instead of standing—as it customary—during the playing of the National Anthem. In the man’s own words:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color
And the great thing about this country is you’re free to stand or sit during the national anthem. No one’s going to haul you away to some dark cell if you don’t clap for the emperor, etc. But at the same time, when you take a stand you do so knowing some are going to disagree with you and will be just as vocal in disagreeing as you are about protesting. And that’s what happened; scores of NFL fans voiced their displeasure at Kaepernick’s actions.
Instead of coming down forcefully on the issue, the NFL was mostly silent. Since the NFL is, at the end of the day, a union of thirty-two businesses, they could have taken a stance—any stance—that they thought would be in the best interest of the thirty-two teams. They did not, and as a result of the controversy, a huge segment of their fan base has decided to turn the channel. Meanwhile Kaepernick is presently without a job because the drama that comes with signing him to a team is not worth it since he’d just be a backup anyway. That’s angered people on the other side of the issue, who’ve called for a boycott of the NFL for their refusal to employ the outspoken quarterback.
The whole thing has fans on both sides turning away all because the NFL refused to nip it in the bud a year ago.
FANS STRUGGLE STAYING INVESTED FOR THE WHOLE THREE-HOUR SHOW
Too many arbitrary rules lead to too many arbitrary penalty flags which halt the flow of the game. And then there’s the ridiculous amount of commercials that air every contest. There’s a commercial before the opening kick and another after the kick, there’s a commercial after every time-out, and one during the two-minute warning. Combine that with the yellow flags that rain from the sky on a weekly basis and you have a game that technically only lasts sixty-minutes taking three times that long to finish.
Unless you’re a fan of a particular team, there’s not many viewers left who will just turn on a game and leave it on for the duration. That’s in stark contrast to college football, which, while it has across-the-board smaller viewership, it also offers a much larger variety of games that are on at the same time (cannibalizing the ratings) and games that hold their viewership for the duration at a much higher percentage than the NFL.
Unless you make a product that fans won’t want to turn away from, your ratings are going to continue sliding.
IT’S THE NO FUN LEAGUE
Get a tackle for a loss and do a dance? That’s a flag.
Wear mismatched socks because your son picked them out for you for your birthday? That’s a fine.
Get a touchdown and rub it in the face of a defender who’d been trash-talking you all day? That’s a flag.
Hit the quarterback with too much intensity? That’s a flag and a fine.
And it goes on like this.
Games are just too much of chore to sit through (again, unless it’s your team that’s playing), and the atmosphere that penalizes every little thing has added to the already-established criticism that the league plays it safe too much. 4th and 1 with 3 minutes left? Better punt (to the team that has been gashing us with the run all afternoon)! It’s maddening.
Until the league remembers football is a game, viewers will find more fun things to watch.
And then there’s Raw.
Ratings have steadily fallen over the years. There’s an ebb and flow to it from January to December, but year over year the trend-line is pointing down. There’s a thousand little reasons for this; everything from more and better TV options to fewer and worse(r) needle-moving superstars can be blamed. Let’s boil it down to three problems…
RAW TRIES TO SERVE EVERYONE, ENDS UP APPEALING TO NO ONE
Vince wants Raw to be a variety show. It’s nothing for him to have the muppets mid-way through hour one, and then have a cage match between a cultist swamp hillbilly and a man who paints his face to look like a demon in hour three. There’s no rhyme or reason or consistency to any of it. It’s a three hour show where “anything” can happen they say, but what they mean by “anything” is “anything that we can commercialize and market” not “anything surprising or exciting that makes sense within the context of a pretend fighting show.”
By trying to produce a show that offers a little bit of everything, WWE has made a show that its core constituency no longer loves. At best WWE fans merely tolerate Raw. We sigh longingly when the rare-bird good episode happens, and we wonder when the next one will come since they come so infrequently. The old joke that WWE hates its fans is only half a joke; the way the company goes out of its way to minimize its bread and butter in the hopes of attracting whatever fans might tune in to see the D-list celebrity they brought in for a guest spot proves the company thinks little about its fans and cares little about putting on a product that they might want to watch.
This is proven in the fact that when something shocking and surprising does happen on Raw, it is talked about as though Vince’s Limo exploded. WWE goes on and on about a surprise title change or shocking debut whenever one happens because it’s such an unusual thing for an actual surprise to occur on Raw anymore.
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That wasn’t always the case, though. A (wrestling) generation ago, Raw was the place where something bonkers happened at least once a week. As a result, fans who watched it were quick to bring it up the next day to the fans who may have missed it because they were checking out what was happening on Nitro (or Monday Night Football). Having missed such a surprise, that fan will be certain to tune in the next week for the duration of the show, and will be rewarded with something else bonkers or shocking that will happen, which perpetuates the cycle and keeps viewership up. It was a winning formula that the company all but abandoned the moment the Monday Night Wars ended. Now we have a RAW that spins its wheels for a month until two or three of the five or six ongoing feuds either ends or advances (with a title change) and then new feuds begin and spin their wheels for a month while the holdover feuds continue spinning their wheels. And all the “stories” are the same, with 50/50 booking, “_____ just pinned the ______ champion!” non-surprise surprise, and rematch after endless rematch. It’s…coma inducing.
THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS WRONG
WWE hates its fans. Why get invested in a show about characters when the writers marginalize the characters you like and give more and more emphasis on the characters you are sick of? Imagine if Vince Gilligan spent half of the final season of Breaking Bad on a story where Skyler runs for mayor or some other drivel? That’s the kind of madness Raw viewers have to put up with as they watch the superstars they want to see pushed to the top be mired in never-ending midcard feuds or disappear altogether in the frustrating void known as “creative has nothing for you.”
As long as the “safe” and “corporate” approach wins out and WWE continues pushing unpopular talent as though they were the most popular superstar (I didn’t say “biggest reaction-getter,” I said “most popular”) while treating the actually-popular superstars as afterthoughts, fans will continue looking for alternative shows to watch, where their interests are actually listened to and whose writers actually care about pleasing the customer who tunes in every week.
WHAT CAN MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL DO?
Stop playing politics/stop letting politics overwhelm the sport. Americans are sick of 24/7 politics; we need an escape and football has been one of the most-popular for a generation now. A few years ago it supplanted baseball as “America’s past-time” but over-politicization is killing it.
Stop with the ticky-tack flags; let the players play and let the game flow.
Allow some individuality to creep into the game. The NFL infamously markets logos, not players. It’s understandable why they do this: Players come and go, players are traded and players retire, but the Jets will always be green and white. The Steelers will always be black and gold. The Cowboys will always be silver and blue. But there is still some room for individuality and…”fun” to be had, if the NFL would not be so stuffy. Fans would respond to it positively, too.
WHAT CAN RAW DO?
Decide what kind of show you want to be, and zero in on that. “Variety” is a fun buzz word, but more often than not it just means you do nothing in particular very well. WWE can do some things really well. In fact, there’s often the feeling after one of their rare “great” episodes of Raw that the company purposefully puts on an inferior product just so they can turn it on when needed. They can be better when they want to be, so they should just do the one or two things they do really well all of the time. How crazy an idea is that?
Be spontaneous. You don’t have to go back to the “Crash-TV” days of Vince Russo…although RAW was never hotter than it was in the late-90’s and ABC execs used to complain about MNF having to go head-to-head with Raw and Nitro. Make a show that fans know they have to tune in and see live. Despite all the tools available to people to watch shows after they air, this is also the era of instant communication. Fans love commenting on twitter and other outlets in real time, and RAW is the only weekly live show of its kind that airs all year long. They’re wasting that competitive edge by purposefully dumbing down the product.
Make the show matter. Put more emphasis on storylines, have cliffhangers that carry to the next week, give matches stakes. These aren’t radical ideas. They’re common sense solutions that will ensure the fans you have this week will stay your fans next week.
WWE has a floor of support, but little by little that floor is diminishing. In 1998, Raw averaged a 5.0 rating during the sixteen-week Monday Night Football season. In 1999 the rating averaged better than a 6.0 during the MNF season. It was 5.0 again in 2000. After that WCW bit the dust and Monday Night Football debuted in 2001 in the waning days of the InVasion angle, where Raw averaged only a 4.0. It settled into a 3.5 groove for the next few years before MNF moved to ESPN. Over time the number dipped as low as 2.5 before climbing back up to around a 3.0.
Last week, amidst all the controversy swirling around the NFL, this year’s Monday Night Football season kicked off with 7.8 rating. Despite the drop, Monday Night Raw brought in a 2.9 rating. WWE praised the number as a lower-than-usual drop, but it’s still proof that the company has no idea how to capitalize on their biggest Monday Night competitor’s fragile state. In 2000 WWE put away WCW for good by airing a show that was must-see every week. It’s 2017 and all of the lessons learned seventeen years ago have been forgotten.
Monday is the first day of the work week. It’s the night when tired workers relax in their chairs and want to sit back and enjoy a show—any show. Someone is going to get those viewers. This ought to be WWE’s golden opportunity.
Right now they’re letting it slip away.