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The NFL’s popularity seems to be down, and those in the game wonder why

Bill Polian, a Hall of Fame former National Football League executive, tuned in to watch the league’s Thursday night contest a week ago and like so many other viewers this season he did so almost grudgingly.

Jacksonville and Tennessee, a pair of small-market franchises with losing records, were squaring off in prime time. If expectations were low beforehand, the game sure met them: a lopsided, sloppy grind in which the Titans led by 27 before halftime. A little more than three hours of penalties, punts and an overall lack of intrigue, even to an NFL lifer.

“The Thursday nights have been awful,” Polian, now an ESPN analyst, said. “Maybe not awful. The Thursday nights have not been compelling.”

The NFL is enduring an unusual season, particularly considering its dominance over the past decade. Television ratings are down — 21.8 percent on Thursday nights, according to Nielsen data — riveting games and story lines have been scarce, and though games have actually been shorter this season than a year ago, it often doesn’t seem like it amid the penalty flags and play stoppages of the season’s first eight weeks.

Theories are common about why the NFL doesn’t have its typical grasp on the American conversation this fall: an extraordinary presidential election and an entertaining baseball postseason that culminated with the Chicago Cubs’ historic World Series victory are two. Others are more central to the NFL itself: an abundance of mediocre teams and a corresponding absence of dominant clubs that has resulted in bland games; indeed two contests within a week last month ended in a tie, a rarity. At the same time, the league has cracked down on on-field celebrations by its players, which many say is further sapping the game of joy and spontaneity.


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