Will concussions like Kuechly’s hurt the NFL’s fortunes?

Carolina Panthers assistant athletic trainer Mark Shermansky, right, keeps a close eye on linebacker Luke Kuechly, left, as he is driven from the field after being injured on a play against the New Orleans Saints Thursday.
Carolina Panthers assistant athletic trainer Mark Shermansky, right, keeps a close eye on linebacker Luke Kuechly, left, as he is driven from the field after being injured on a play against the New Orleans Saints Thursday.

The sight of Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly sobbing on the field after a concussion Thursday night was a wrenching scene for anyone who viewed it. Could it also prove a pivotal moment for a business enterprise that currently dominates the sports landscape?

The National Football League is a multibillion-dollar juggernaut that tops television ratings, racks up big-name corporate sponsors and brings in millions of fans to games every year. But the league has shown signs of weakness this season with a surprising drop in TV ratings blamed on multiple factors and ongoing bad publicity over player safety.

The particularly disturbing scene Thursday night of an injured Kuechly can’t be good for business, experts said Friday. But they said the impact on the league and individual teams likely would be minimal in the short term, although it could be an issue in the long run, especially at the beginning of the next decade when major TV deals come up for renewal.

“There’s a certain human instinct that says I just don’t want to watch people get hurt like that or see All-Pro defensive players reduced to tears,” said Dennis Deninger, a professor in the department of sports management at Syracuse University. “That can’t help but hurt.”

Based on revenue, the NFL has never been stronger. According to a Forbes estimate, the league is expected to bring in $13 billion this year, up more than 50 percent from 2010. Commissioner Roger Goodell has stated the league can reach $25 billion by 2027.

But after overpowering TV ratings in recent years, it has seen a drop in popularity that prompted the league to send a memo to team owners last month to tamp down any concerns. The NFL largely blamed the ratings decline on attention being diverted to the presidential election.

According to ratings tracker Nielsen, NFL games this season through the election on average drew 9 percent of the U.S. TV audience, down from 10.9 percent over the same period last year. The last two presidential election years – 2008 and 2012 – also saw ratings dips.

Thursday night’s game between the Panthers and the New Orleans Saints, however, was a hit for NBC, which was broadcasting its first-ever Thursday Night Football game. The telecast averaged 13.3 million TV viewers – ranking as the network’s most-watched Thursday night show in November since 2006, excluding Thanksgiving nights.

In addition to the presidential race, experts have listed a number of reasons why ratings may be down: competition from new digital-viewing options, bad match-ups, slow pace of play and warm weather in the northern U.S. But concerns about safety could also be turning off viewers, experts said.

In addition to other factors, “it could be a function of at least some group of fans feeling turned off by the physical brutality,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who has written extensively on sports. “I suspect that will continue to be the case.”

Ironically, efforts by the NFL to reduce injuries could also be hurting ratings with purists who view “arbitrary and ineffective protective rules” as unnecessarily reducing the violent nature of the game, added John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University.

In a survey of more than 200 fans published this week, Sports Illustrated found that 94 percent of respondents thought head injuries were a serious problem in football. More than 35 percent said the NFL was not taking adequate measures to protect players.

The NFL in recent years has taken steps to improve safety, including making 42 rule changes since 2002 and launching research partnerships with General Electric and the U.S. Army.

“We have an unwavering commitment to drive progress in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of head injuries, enhance medical protocols and further improve the way the game is taught and played,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “We have made progress but have much more to do.”

Head injuries, however, continue to plague the sport, with players experiencing 271 concussions in 2015, up 32 percent from the previous year, according to NFL data. This year, major Panthers stars Kuechly, quarterback Cam Newton and left tackle Michael Oher have been affected.

Injuries to star players like Kuechly and Newton could heighten concerns among fans, said Vanderbilt’s Vrooman.

“Kuechly is a down-home, old-school born-to-play NFL linebacker who suffered a devastating head injury that potentially shocked not only the Panther nation, but also the rest of the NFL universe,” he said. “Cam Newton is a new school born-to-run-and-pass Superman whose concussions have defied the obviously inconsistent and ineffective rules ostensibly designed to protect him.”

Beyond TV ratings, experts said it’s difficult to say if concussion worries are currently denting the NFL’s bottom line. It’s possible the concerns could affect merchandise sales or ticket sales, said Zimbalist, the Smith College professor, but he didn’t see a “catastrophic” impact in the short run.

While the NFL continues to grow, it might be growing even faster without player safety controversies, noted David Carter, a principal with the Sports Business Group, a consulting firm.

The NFL makes the bulk of its money off network TV deals, said Syracuse’s Deninger. Those revenues are largely fixed until major contracts come up for renewal in 2021 and 2022.

“It could be a day of reckoning,” he said.

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker