By Carl Stoffers
The predictions of the National Football League’s imminent demise have proven to be as flat as a New England Patriots football, based on the television ratings for the 2014 season.
Despite several high profile incidents of domestic violence and child abuse last year, female viewership of the NFL has not rapidly declined, as some industry experts and journalists predicted. Overall ratings increased slightly for the 2014 season, according to the Nielsen Company, a global marketing and research firm that measures media audiences.
An NFL regular season contest averaged 17.6 million viewers in 2014 (up from 17.4 million in 2013). Additionally, Thursday Night Football ranked number one in all of prime time, averaging more than 21 million viewers per week, according to Nielsen.
The mass exodus of female fans following incidents involving star players Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy never materialized. In fact, there was only a slight decrease — from 6.08 million viewers to 6.06 million — in average female viewership in the 2014 regular season, a decrease of less than one percent.
“Sports is supposed to be an area of fun for us,” said Dr. Deborah Borisoff, professor of Media Culture and Communication at NYU, by phone. “We live vicariously through sport. These incidents are seen as something that doesn’t touch our daily lives. It’s really hard for people to say, ‘Do I really want to fight this fight and stop watching the NFL? I’m already fighting so much in my daily life.’ Sports is an escape mechanism, especially in tough times.”
The NFL’s domestic violence issue got even bigger last September as the season was starting. But the issue had been simmering since last March and even before that, after the arrest of Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice for assaulting his then-fiancé in an Atlantic City elevator. In response, commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for the first two games of the season.
“I initially thought he should have been suspended for more than two games,” said Gwen Robinson, 38, who serves as the “Official Fan Reporter” for the Ravens blog on NFLFemale.com, by phone. “But that didn’t stop me from watching. I love football.”
While Rice’s arrest was noteworthy, it occurred in the off-season when there was less fan attention. Less than two months later, Carolina Panthers All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy was arrested on May 13 for abusing his girlfriend. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police accused Hardy of “grabbing (the) victim and throwing to the floor, throwing into a bathtub, slamming her against a futon and strangling her.”
Hardy pleaded guilty July 15 and received 18 months probation. He later appealed, and will be tried later this year. Hardy was in uniform when the Panthers opened the 2014 season on September 7 in Tampa Bay, recording four tackles and one sack in Carolina’s 20-14 win.
NFL broadcasts accounted for five of the top six programs watched for the week ending September 7. It appeared that the Hardy and Rice incidents would blow over, just as previous domestic abuse cases involving players seemed to.
“I think the NFL thought it was all going to go away,” said Philadelphia Eagles fan Leah Zummo, 36, as she sat in a New Jersey sports bar watching a Super Bowl preview show. “They slapped Ray Rice on the wrist and Hardy was playing, and nobody seemed to be too upset about it.”
Then, on September 8, TMZ released the video from inside that Atlantic City elevator. The shocking footage showed Rice knocking the woman unconscious.
Suddenly, everything changed. Or did it?
The Ravens cut Rice later that day, apparently aware that the release of the brutal video was going to require action more severe than the two-game suspension that had previously been handed down by Goodell.
The Panthers, perhaps aware of the fallout that the Rice footage would cause, deactivated Hardy before their week two contest. He did not play again in 2014.
Just four days after TMZ released the second Rice video, on September 12, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for physically abusing his four-year-old son. The 2012 NFL most valuable player was placed on the exempt list on September 17, effectively ending his season.
“Maybe it’s a double standard,” said Robinson, who admitted she has “mixed feelings” about Rice. “But him (Peterson) hitting his kid with a switch and leaving bruises that were still there a week later made me not want to be a fan of him anymore, but not of the NFL.”
Despite the public relations nightmare of September, the bad press did not hurt the NFL where it hurts most: the TV ratings. Nielsen reported that the top three most-watched programs for the week ending Sept. 14, 2014 among adults age 18-49 were NFL broadcasts.
The following week, as pundits like ESPN’s Keith Olbermann proclaimed that the league was destined to lose its female audience, the top three programs (and four of the top five) were NFL broadcasts, according to Nielsen.
The continued success of the NFL in light of public relations disasters that would sink lesser organizations begs the question: Why is the NFL so invincible?
“The public tends to individualize deviant behavior,” said Dr. Michael Johnson, a professor of women’s studies at Penn State, and an expert on domestic violence issues. “We look at what’s happening with Ray Rice and we compartmentalize. It’s easier to chalk it up to a few bad apples than to look at societal causes or an all-male, violent organization like the NFL.”
The league responded to the crisis in September by partnering with No More, a national organization formed in 2013 that aims to end sexual assault and domestic violence. The result was an ad campaign that featured prominent athletes and celebrities reacting to off-camera footage of domestic violence.
“I feel that the ad campaign was a little hypocritical,” said Pittsburgh Steelers fan Kelly Caputo, 39, as she watched the NFL Network at a New Jersey sports bar. “The NFL is going to lecture people about domestic violence? Now they’re saying, ‘No more’? Where was the ad campaign in August?”
Zummo also felt the “No More” campaign lacked sincerity but admitted that it didn’t affect her viewing. “Sure, it’s not genuine,” Zummo said of the campaign. “But I’m not going to stop watching football because Ray Rice is a jerk who can’t control himself. I’m a football fan, not a Ray Rice fan.”
Despite the timing, others felt that the No More campaign was a positive development.
“How many anti-domestic violence ads had you seen on TV before this?” asked Johnson. “It’s a step in the right direction in terms of raising awareness.”
The league also named Lisa Friel, former head of the Sex Crimes Unit of the New York County District Attorney’s Office, a special advisor to Goodell in September. According to the league, Friel was hired to “help lead and shape the NFL’s policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault.”
The league, meanwhile, continued to finish high in the ratings throughout the season. According to Nielsen, the Cowboys-Eagles Thanksgiving Day game was the most watched program of the fall ratings season, with an estimated 32 million viewers. Despite all the controversy, the public still wanted to watch the NFL.
It is unclear whether the fallout from the 2014 cases will be enough of a catalyst for true change in the league’s culture in terms of how it deals with domestic violence. But the changes that are occurring may be permanent.
“It’s a public relations matter, for sure,” said Johnson, “but the steps that the NFL is taking now may be irreversible. They’re moving towards sanctions and discipline that they won’t be able to back away from in the future.”
One of the most tumultuous seasons in NFL history will conclude with the Super Bowl. After that, it will be up to the public to decide whether they’re more concerned about slightly deflated footballs or brutalized women. Regardless, there will be plenty of females watching.