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Analysis: The league's current woes may pale in comparison to an exodus of the younger viewers who could support the sport in the future

The National Football League has another problem.

Just as countless parties are tackling it over its handling of the recent Ray Rice controversy, its recent disclosure that its players are more likely than the general population to sustain severe brain injuries, and the news that Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson has been indicted on charges of child abuse, the NFL may have to contend with something potentially even more devastating.

Younger viewers are walking away from broadcasts of its games.

The average audience between 18 and 49 for NFL broadcasts across CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and the NFL Network has declined by about 10.6% over the last four seasons, according to Nielsen data prepared by Horizon Media, to about 7.7 million in 2013 from about 8.62 million in 2010. Meantime, male viewers between 18 and 24 watching the sport have also fallen off, tumbling about 5.3% in the same time period, to approximately 847,000 in 2013 from 894,000 in 2010.

“This segment is not passionate about the NFL like older age groups,” says Kirk Wakefield, executive director of sports and entertainment marketing at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business. “The social status of NFL teams and players may be deteriorating compared to other pastimes or interests that are more personally engaging.”An NFL spokesman did not respond to a query about the ratings declines.

The falloff – declines in both categories of audience in each of the last four years – shows a cloud forming around what has in the last several years been a silver lining in the U.S TV business. Comcast, CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox and Walt Disney pay millions in rights to broadcast big-audience TV events like “Sunday Night Football” on NBC or “Monday Night Football” on ESPN. Indeed, CBS paid a reported $250 million to $300 million for permission to broadcast just eight NFL games on Thursday nights this season, in a deal that will allow the contest to run simultaneously on the league’s own NFL Network.

In this new era of people watching TV shows days and even weeks after their original air date, the NFL broadcasts offer a welcome blast of old-school: No one wants to watch a sports match after the clock runs out. And so the football shows generate healthy amounts of audience who watch live, all at once, without skipping the commercials that pay for them, in numbers that remind sponsors like Anheuser-Busch and Subway why they flock to broadcast TV in the first place.

But if the league and the networks can’t find a way to stoke growth among 18-to-49ers, their exodus is likely to make some advertisers reconsider the value of NFL games, and, subsequently, force the networks to wonder why they continue to fork over huge amounts of cash to televise it all.

To be certain, NFL football remains, perhaps, the biggest-ticket item on TV. ESPN’s most recent “Monday Night Football” lured an average of nearly 14.9 viewers overall, making it the most-watched program on TV that evening. One day prior, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football”won an average of 22.2 million viewers. And all five networks broadcasting NFL games saw their overall audiences for the broadcasts tick up noticeably in the 2013 regular season, according to Horizon’s Nielsen analysis, by an average of 4.7%.

Even as its overall viewership rises, however, the NFL audience has gotten older. Consider that in 2006, the median age for an NFL viewer was 45.8. By 2012, the median had risen to 47.1; in 2013, it was 48.4 – just skirting the edge of the 18-to-49 demographic advertisers say they covet most.

A continued decline in youth could undermine the NFL’s bargaining position (though that day is not likely to come soon). The NFL games are such a phenomenon in the current TV landscape that the league has explored the idea of asking musicians who perform at the halftime show of the Super Bowl to pony up some sort of compensation in exchange for their appearance. And who else but the NFL could get CBS to give The NFL Network top billing in the new logo for its “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts?

Some chunk of that young audience may be consuming NFL football in non-traditional means that are not easy to measure. Fox recently stuck a deal to stream more than 100 games, and ESPN streams “Monday Night Football” via a mobile app. The NFL has given the network broadcasting the Super Bowl the rights to stream the event over the last few years. And Verizon has a deal to transmit games via smartphones, for which it paid $1 billion in 2013 for a deal expected to last four years.

Yet there’s also an obvious dynamic at play: Once a property gets as big as the NFL is, how much growth is left? Viewership of the Super Bowl continues to break records. In 2014, about 111.5 million people tuned in to Fox to watch the event, according to Nielsen. But the second-most watched game snared an average of 111.3 million in 2012. Considering the first Super Bowl snatched just 24.4 million, it seems evident that the annual pigskin classic seems to be nearing the saturation point.

The NFL’s audience challenge comes as rival sports leagues  – who face similar challenges in keeping younger fans engaged – have new and energetic leadership. Adam Silver seems determined not to let issues of racism fester, and has moved decisively in the cases of both the Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks, two teams whose top executives were caught making insensitive remarks about non-white players or customers. At Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred is set to succeed Bud Selig as commissioner and has had oversight of that league’s effort to root out players caught abusing performance-enhancing substances.

Are younger people turned off by the NFL’s current woes, or are they just turning off the TV set as part of larger shifts in culture and technology? “These are important issues for the NFL to explore,” says Rodney Paul, a professor of sport management at Syracuse University, “which hopefully will be investigated among many lines and disciplines in the near future.”

If they aren’t, perhaps a sport like soccer will gain at the NFL’s expense.

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