Ratings for regular-season games fell 17 percent over the past two years, according to Nielsen, and after one week of play in the new season, viewership has been flat. February marked the third-straight year of audience decline for the Super Bowl and the smallest audience since 2009. Youth participation in tackle football, meanwhile, has declined by nearly 22 percent since 2012 in the face of an emerging scientific consensus that the game destroys the brains of its players. Once a straightforward Sunday diversion, the NFL has become a daily exercise in cognitive dissonance for fans and a hotly contested front in a culture war that no longer leaves space for non-combatants.
To many outside observers, this looks like the end of an era. "The NFL probably peaked two years ago," says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College who specializes in the business of sports. "It's basically treading water."