The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mark Cuban foresaw an NFL ‘implosion’ of greed. Now, he says, it’s ‘accelerating.’

Mark Cuban hasn’t changed his mind about the NFL’s problems. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

A little over three years ago, Mark Cuban created a stir when he predicted that an NFL “implosion” was only 10 years away because “pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And [it’s] getting hoggy.”

The problem, as the Dallas Mavericks owner and possible presidential candidate saw it then, was the danger that comes with saturation. “Rule number one of business,” he said at the time, was that “you get greedy [and] it always, always, always, always, always turns on you.”

Three years later, NFL ratings have dropped, just as they did last season before the election. They’ve rebounded from a September dominated by hurricanes, national anthem protests, and lingering concerns about concussions, but they’re still off — disappointing, if not disastrous for TV networks.

“The NFL still has great TV ratings relative to other shows,” the “Shark Tank” star replied Thursday in an email to The Post. “That said, I think the problem I outlined continues and is accelerating for the NFL.”

The sport is everywhere: Thursday nights, Sunday mornings from London, Sunday afternoons, Sunday nights, Monday nights and, on Dec. 16 and 23, Saturday nights. In-game highlights are everywhere on social media, websites and mobile apps and the Red Zone channel allow fans to watch every touchdown and keep up with their fantasy teams, diluting the attention they pay to actual games.

James Murdoch, the Fox CEO, has cited Thursday night games specifically. “I do think the proliferation of Thursday availability — and the proliferation of football generally — does mean that you’re asking a lot from customers to watch Thursday,” he said earlier this week (via AdWeek). “And then they watch a lot more college football games on Saturdays, and then on Sundays, and then on ‘Monday Night Football,’ etc. It’s a lot. So I do think that preserving the scarcity value of those events and that audience is something that is worth thinking about.” That’s a view that the NFL was quick to dispute, with spokesman Joe Lockhart telling reporters, “We are not oversaturated, though we will always look at that.”

The numbers show that actual viewership of games is down about seven percent from the same point last season, according to the Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand, and 18 percent compared with the same point in the 2015 season. The biggest drop of any demo, the 11 percent across-the-board ratings drop in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, is particularly concerning for TV execs and for Cuban, as a businessman and as a father.

“[The accelerating problem is] confirmed by the dramatic decline in participation by kids in tackle football and from a TV perspective the significant drop in viewing by millennials and younger,” he wrote. “The age of NFL viewers keeps on going up.

“Anecdotally, I have an 8-year-old son that plays flag football. He is in his second year and he and most of his teammates still don’t know any but the most basic rules of the game. Unlike generations before, they have no interest in watching the game. So they have no clue what the rules or even the names of the positions are.”

That change may be more generational than sport-specific, but the bottom line is it’s more of an issue for the NFL right now.

“Kids playing Minecraft or watching YouTube videos instead of watching sports on TV and the lack of families having a hardcore allegiance to their city’s teams is a fundamental problem for all major sports,” he wrote. “But it’s a bigger problem for the NFL because a growing number of parents are trying to hide football from their kids so they don’t want to play.”

It is not certain just how much of the NFL’s ratings issues is attributable to national anthem demonstrations that brought down the ire of the president upon players and the league. There are other issues, such as the increasing concern over head trauma and the loss of a number of top stars such as Odell Beckham Jr., J.J. Watt, David Johnson and others to season-ending injuries, although the anthem story line was dominant.

Cuban, who has said he was mulling a presidential run in 2020 but is not ready to commit to it, has long been critical of Trump and thinks that the perception of the NFL players’ message was twisted into being an attack on the military rather than a way to raise awareness of police brutality and social injustice. In a podcast this month with Bakari Sellers, an attorney and former member of the South Carolina state legislature, Cuban said he suggested to Mavericks players that, rather than quietly taking a knee and “letting someone else control the narrative,” they should record a video statement that could be shown on arena monitors and on media platforms. “If the goal is to send a message, let’s send a message the best way possible,” he said. “Let’s not just play a game where we’re hoping the narrative is what we want it to be.”

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