The NFL puts audience first again, unlike MLB and NBA


You know why I love the NFL? Because the NFL loves its fans back. For decades the MLB has catered to a tiny group of purists obsessed with its record books and unwritten rules. The NBA has nervously bowed to the sensibilities of blue-check media members. All the while NFL - much to the chagrin of the Adam Silver-adoring press - has remained focused on the only constituency that really matters in American business: Its customers.

For our increasingly self-obsessed collection of sports commenters (we're narcissistic, and performatively liberal by nature) the idea of catering to average Americans is taboo, or at the very least inconsequential. The thought process goes, "Why please those yucky normies when we decide what's entertaining, morally sound or newsworthy?" The answer to that question, of course, is that as well as being self-obsessed, we in the media have also become too refined. Elite media voices in this country now scoff at the idea of simply watching a game. That's barbaric. They'd rather watch the sideline, and count how many players didn't kneel. Shame! We've now built out an entire sports media ecosystem around topics that are no doubt important, but serve better as the icing than the cake.

No league has embraced that ecosystem more thoroughly than the NBA. Under commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA has dived head first into politics, social issues, and even geopolitics. Personally, I think the NBA is gutsy, but unwise. They've chosen to genuflect to an elite media cohort which has been steadily losing public trust for decades - in large part due to its lecturing, finger-wagging nature. What has ensued is an endless feedback loop between the NBA and blue-check media members - who are both sure the NBA's making the decent, and strategically sound next move. This reached its apex when the NFL's ratings dipped slightly in 2016-17, prompting several discussions about when the NBA would overtake the NFL.

This was, of course, always ridiculous, but a great reminder of how far off track a league can get if it focuses on selling itself to the wrong people. This year's NBA Finals are down 45% compared to last year, even though they feature the league's most high-profile star, LeBron James. Luckily for Adam Silver, he'll never have to reckon with any of this, because personalities are lining up to provide cover for him.

The NFL - whose ratings are mostly flat year-over-year (remarkable considering it's an election year) has stayed true to its guiding principles: Serve the media only as much as is necessary, forget the record books, and remember the common viewer. The common viewer is interested in offense, not what's offensive.

So, during the same year the NBA injected more current events than ever into its on-court product, the NFL skewed the opposite way, instead injecting more scoring.

In its entire 100-year history, the NFL has never opened a season on the kind of scoring tear we've seen in 2020. Teams are averaging 24.7 offensive points per game during the first three weeks, 16% better than 2019 over the same period, and 22% higher than their average during the previous two decades. - ESPN

How did the NFL accomplish that? According to ESPN's report, a directive was set by the league office, and its head of officiating training, to put the kibosh on ticky tack offensive holding calls - which are down by 59% year-over-year.

The NFL doesn't know how its audience feels politically or socially, but it knows how its audience responds to points. The more, the better. What's more? On-field topics have dominated the conversation this season. Will Russell Wilson be the MVP? Can Lamar Jackson ever beat Patrick Mahomes? Speaking of Mahomes, have we ever seen anything like this? Those narratives - three weeks into the NFL season - have swallowed up any emanating from the NBA Finals or MLB playoffs.

This should serve as a reminder to Roger Goodell and his 32 bosses: There is great temptation in endless puff-pieces about a league's moral backbone, but the reward hardly ever matches what you leave behind to achieve them. When you lose your core audience, good luck cashing in on "likes," "retweets" and back-pats.

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