Published on December 18, 2017 by Alexis Whiting  

The NFL is in Decline

The NFL’s viewership and ratings this year have declined at an unprecedented rate. Many people claim these declines will only be short-term as they allegedly result from the National Anthem protests and the debates stemming from political and sports figures, such as President Trump and Jerry Jones.

The truth is that the NFL’s decline cannot be blamed solely on the protests. The NFL is facing a much bigger problem – one that could cause a permanent decline and could possibly result in a complete dissimulation of the league in the future.

NFL’s Real Threat

The real problem? The NFL is not doing a good job of appealing to the younger audience of Millennials and Generation Z ages 13-34. The presence of the league is quickly becoming irrelevant among the generations that represent more than one quarter of the nation’s population, far exceeding the number of baby boomers. In fact, the baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964 (about ages 50-70), are the only age groups who show an increase in NFL viewership from 2011-2016 with only 5% of 13-17 year olds making up the NFL fan market in 2016. As the baby boomer generation gets older and fewer, the NFL will likely be left with few remaining loyal fans.

Market by age chart.

What Are Millennials and Gen Z Watching If Not The NFL?

Men and women ages 13-34 display an all-time low interest in the NFL while eSports, which has only recently immerged in the market, are stealing most of their attention. eSports are far more popular than any other sport with 16.1% of people ages 13-17 and 52.4% ages 18-34 having viewed and/or attended eSports in the past year. This can be compared to 4.7% of 13-17 year olds viewing and/or attending an NFL event with only 23.1% for ages 18-34. In fact, neither age group even places the NFL in the number one spot for viewership and attendance from 2011-2016. In past years, 13-17 year olds have preferred MLS (2011-2013), NBA (2014), and MiLB (2015). Age group 18-34 has preferred the MLS every year (2011-2015) prior to the introduction of eSports in 2016.

Ages 13-17 Chart
Ages 18-34 Chart

What can eSports teach the NFL?

Technology and media are changing the way the younger generations encounter sports. If the NFL, along with the other traditional sports leagues, do not alter their methods of fan engagement to accommodate the new technologies that are shaping those generations, younger men and women will not be loyal to those brands and the league will face certain decline.

Daniel Rapaport (@Daniel_Rapaport), writer for Sports Illustrated, says, “These sites [eSports] push the viewing experience a step further. Unlike traditional sports broadcasting, it's a two-way transaction.”

The key is to continue to implement strategies that will keep older generations interested, meanwhile developing new strategies to attract the currently disinterested younger age groups. The NFL must find creative channels that innovate the way the league interacts with Millennials and Generation Z, likely by providing more opportunities for interaction between the viewer and the league, like eSports. The future of the league depends on their ability to do just that.

This blog post was written by Samford University student Alexis Whiting.


Bureau, U. C. (2015, June 25). Millennials Outnumber Baby Boomers and Are Far More Diverse. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from

Rapaport , D. (2017, February 9). What to Expect from the Booming eSports Industry in 2017. Retrieved November 22, 2017, from

SMA Sports Market Analytics. (n.d.). Market Research / Demographics. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from