Odell Beckham, Jr.
Three of the NFL’s biggest stars are now out for the season after suffering injuries in Weeks 5 and 6. Tom Brady is still in it, throwing two touchdown passes in the Patriots’ 24-17 win over the Jets on Sunday.
Antonio Brown finished the Steelers’ 19-13 win over the Chiefs with 155 receiving yards to go with his show-stopping TD. However, that’s as deep as the NFL’s superstar depth chart goes.
The players lost in Weeks 5 and 6 are some of the game’s best, and some of its most transcendent. They’re the ones who were able to break through the anonymity of a helmet. Losing so many players in that tier leaves the League to question the appeal of its product.
With the star-studded injuries picture looking so bleak, where does that leave a league with floundering ratings, but that holds a majority of prime time slots on Sunday, Monday and Thursday?
The NFL ratings picture has only gotten worse since 2016. The average TV audience through Week 5 has dropped 7% compared to the same period in 2016. Sure, there is the “Kaepernick Effect” by which many fans have stopped watching because they are offended by the players’ political protest at sporting events, to paraphrase the issue.
On top of that, there is the “Trump Effect” whereby the President’s call for people to boycott the NFL has muddled the ratings picture and been heeded by everyone from bar owners to private citizens.
The injuries to major stars only add to the NFL’s problems, chipping away at its popularity. The absence of big-name stars and their ability to make must-see, I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened plays will likely further damage the NFL’s ratings.
Compounding the issue, injuries to the likes of Brandon Marshall, Julian Edelman, Greg Olsen and Tyler Eifert hurt the League, especially given the current lack of headline talent typically used to sell games. While not headline talent themselves, these players play crucial roles on their respective teams and are capable of making amazing, can’t miss plays, making football more fun to watch. And with the wave of injuries hitting some of the more dynamic rookies, including Vikings’ running back Dalvin Cook, who was electrifying prior to tearing his ACL, the NFL has almost no way to market its product.
This season’s rookie class has provided several must-watch players. Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt has been amazing through six weeks, and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has become compulsory viewing after five starts. However, they don’t yet have the star power to put the League’s fate on their backs. This leaves the NFL to sell games, like the Giants-Redskins Thanksgiving night matchup, without Beckham. How attractive does that sound?
What’s more is that the NFL has always believed that the sport itself is enough to drive its popularity. Just look at the way it sells Thursday Night Football with the tagline “When it’s on, it’s on.” This is evidence of the fact that the League is relying on the pull of the sport to sell its product, but this fails to address the fact Thursday Night Football is essentially a failure. There are not enough good matchups, nor is there enough top talent, to fill the standalone game’s primetime slot that will draw in a respectable audience. Without big stars, there’s even less of a reason to watch.
Without its headliners in play, 2017 will be the season the NFL learns just how popular football is, and how they will need to market moving forward.