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Opinion: All those predictions of the NFLs impending demise now seem quite silly

Opinion: All those predictions of the NFLs impending demise now seem quite silly

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Story Courtesy of USA Today

It wasn’t so long ago -- two or three seasons, max -- that alarms were blaring about the future of America’s favorite sport. Safety concerns, player protests, awful games and a lack of interest by teenagers and 20-somethings were supposedly taking an irreversible toll on the NFL’s popularity, reflected in declining TV ratings and empty seats in stadiums.

It might not happen in the next season or two, but the NFL was dying, the doomsayers said. Within a decade or two, football, and the NFL in particular, would be relegated to niche status, much like what happened with boxing and horse racing. It might retain its popularity in pockets of the country, but it would never again be the social and entertainment behemoth that it is now.

Hahahahahahahaha. Oh, that’s a good one.

What some took as the start of the NFL’s demise has turned out to be nothing more than a temporary blip. Don’t believe it? A glance around your school, office or neighborhood Tuesday probably found plenty of people yawning or chugging extra coffee because they’d stayed up way too late watching Monday Night Football, which went to overtime before Seattle ended San Francisco’s run as the NFL’s last unbeaten team.

Beyond the anecdotal evidence are hard numbers. After the NFL’s TV ratings declined in 2016 and 2017, viewership numbers are up for a second consecutive season. Through Week 9, the NFL said its games are averaging 16.1 million TV and digital viewers, a 5 percent increase over last season.

NBC said its ratings for Sunday Night Football are up 5 percent from last year, when it was TV’s most-watched show for the eighth year in a row. And since the season began, nine of the top 10 shows have been NFL games.

It’s not only games, either. The NFL draft can be as exciting as watching paint dry, yet its audience for the first day dwarfed both the NBA and NHL playoffs. Its combined average of 6.1 million viewers is comparable to ratings hits like Grey’s Anatomy and The Conners.

The draft also drew more than 600,000 fans in Nashville, Tenn. Yes, you read that right. More than 600,000 braved the rain to watch Roger Goodell read off names. Every 10 minutes.

It probably helps that President Donald Trump is no longer targeting the NFL to rile up his base, his itchy Twitter finger trained instead on the Democrats and impeachment proceedings. The player protests have largely ended, too, with many athletes instead focusing their efforts on grass-roots programs to address racism and the other social injustices plaguing our country.

Mostly, though, the NFL has rebounded because it’s entertaining. Often wildly so.

Gone are those routine blowouts and Thursday night games that were barely watchable. This season, 103 of the 144 games have been within a score in the fourth quarter, and 77 have been decided by a touchdown or less.

On Thursday night, we’ve had the Rams at Seahawks, which was one of the best games of the year, and raucous games between the 49ers and Cardinals and Chargers and Raiders.

Even the awful teams can make a game of it. Atlanta, which was left for dead sometime last month, stunned the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Miami, which is supposed to be tanking, has a two-game winning streak.

True, Washington and the still-winless Cincinnati Bengals are awful. But you can at least hate-watch Dan Snyder’s latest spectacle of ineptitude and dysfunction.

Fans are getting to see the league’s future unfold in front of them, too. The Baltimore Ravens have become can’t-miss viewing because of Lamar Jackson, who is like the Madden game come to life. (Did you see his spin move Sunday?)

Same for the Kansas City Chiefs and reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, who makes at least one play a game that leaves you shaking your head and wondering how he could possibly have done that. Add in Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and maybe Kyle Allen and Mason Rudolph, and these are the players who are going to be carrying the NFL far into the next decade.

Yes, declining participation at the youth level remains a concern for the NFL, as parents struggle with when -- or even whether -- to let their kids play a game that can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The sudden retirement of Andrew Luck was a harsh reminder of the toll the game can take.  

And, yet, we continue to watch.  

The NFL will no doubt look different in a decade or two. Players come and go, coaches innovate and rules change. But to think that the league will no longer exist, or be a shell of its current self, now seems as outlandish as the idea of Jerry Jones handing over the keys to the Dallas Cowboys to Johnny Manziel. 

Then again, we'd have watched that, too. 

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