If the headlines were any measure, it's been a disastrous year for the National Football League. A massive concussion settlement, video of a star player brutally beating his girlfriend in an elevator, photos of child abuse perpetrated by a former league MVP, and a three-time champion accused of cheating in a conference championship game all cast a pall over America's most popular sport. 

Consider the following scandals:

  • In July, a judge lifted the $765 million cap on the league’s settlement of a lawsuit brought by hundreds of former players, an indication that sum would not be enough to cover the players' long-term medical expenses.
  • In the space of just three months, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Jonathan Dwyer were all charged with domestic violence.
  • Sponsors from Anheuser-Busch to FedEx expressed their concerns about the way the league was handling those cases. Commissioner Roger Goodell was forced to convene a press conference at a midtown Manhattan hotel to apologize both to sponsors and to the general public.
  • Finally, less than two weeks ago, the NFL announced it was investigating whether the New England Patriots had cheated by deflating footballs in the AFC championship game. Their victory in that game is what led to their upcoming appearance in Super Bowl XLIX.

Yet for all the hits it’s taken over the past year, you have to look pretty hard at the NFL’s shield to find anything resembling a crack. NFL games accounted for all of the top 20, and 45 of the 50 most-watched shows on TV this past fall, according to Nielsen. That same research found that an NFL game was the week's most-watched TV show during all 17 weeks of the season for a third consecutive year.

Viewership among women, the demographic the NFL was most worried about losing, actually went up, rising 5 percent from last year's average and more than 17 percent from averages recorded 10 years ago.

“None of this seems to matter.... People are really wedded to the game,” Richard Crepeau, a professor of sports history at the University of Central Florida and the author of “NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime,” said.

Sports are alternately described as a mirror for society and as one of its most powerful opiates. But on the eve of a Super Bowl that's expected to be the most highly watched of all time, it is worth asking what the prospects look like for America's most popular sport.

Less Popular As Population Grows

If you really squint, you can find a few potential signs of trouble for the league. “The NFL and the networks will make the argument that more people are watching than ever before,” Jon Swallen, chief research officer at Kantar Media, said. “But that's partly because there are 300 million people living in the United States today and not 200 million.... If you look at them as a percentage of the overall population, the ratings were lower.”

Marginal dips in overall population percentage might not be cause for alarm, especially for something that’s so much bigger than everything else on the American media landscape, but changes in advertiser interest would be. NBC announced this week that it had sold out of its Super Bowl ad slots at a record $4.5 million per 30 seconds of airtime. Fifteen of the advertisers buying airtime were new, the highest number since 2000. The number of automakers buying time during Sunday’s game declined, however, from 11 last year to just six, a sharp drop for what has long been one of the best-represented categories among Super Bowl advertisers.

“To have such a surge in new, first-time advertisers means you have to have had an offset in one of the other two,” Swallen said. “If you’re not new, you are either a returning advertiser or you are a lapsed advertiser who's coming back from a hiatus. You have to be one of those three things. “It's not, ‘Why are there these new ones coming in?’ It's, ‘Why is there a lower retention rate?’”

Yet both of the above can be brushed off: The ratings numbers are counteracted by the fact that 111.5 million people watched the big game in 2014, and the new advertisers are counteracted by the fact that they represent healthy demand for Super Bowl airtime.

Unambiguous signs of trouble are difficult to uncover. The NFL’s top apparel retailers, which include Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Target, do not break out sales data for individual product lines, making it impossible to tell whether jersey sales dipped this season. Enrollment in Pop Warner, the country’s top youth football association, declined between 2010 and 2012, according to research done by ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. Pop Warner did not respond to requests for its latest participation numbers.

Indeed, for every warning sign, there are several positives that the league can promote. At the beginning of the season, when the uproar surrounding the domestic violence cases was reaching a fever pitch, the NFL reached a new five-year television contract with Sky Sports to air its games in the U.K.

Sustained Activist Pressure

The league's PR problems are not going away. Though much of the momentum and media attention that boiled earlier this season has dissipated, the people and organizations calling for change in the NFL seem undeterred. Native American rights activists, who have been advocating for the Washington Redskins to change their team name, will march on Phoenix, Arizona, on Super Bowl Sunday. And on Thursday, three months after calling for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation, National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill demanded it again.   

“After a flurry of glitzy PR maneuvers and incomplete investigations, the NFL may think that the pressure’s off to change the culture of violence against women and shake up their leadership,” O’Neill wrote in a statement released Thursday. “The NFL will remain under a cloud of doubt and mistrust unless Roger Goodell steps down.”

Worst-Case Scenario

Sports fans are loath to abandon the games they love so much. Though individual players may wind up suffering for their on- or off-field sins, the downfall of one or more stars rarely drags the league down with them. The steroids scandal that rocked Major League Baseball appears to have had a negligible effect on ticket sales, and the same could be said of the widespread drug abuse that plagued both baseball and basketball in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet there is some evidence that when a problem is endemic enough, fans will stop showing up. In 2006, Italy’s premier soccer league, Serie A, was rocked by the “Calciopoli” scandal, which implicated many of Serie A’s top clubs in match-fixing activities that had been going on for an entire decade. Players and managers received lifetime bans, clubs vacated league titles and a dark cloud descended over the sport.

Research suggests “Calciopoli” did in fact cause a momentary decline in attendance. Juventus, Serie A's most popular club and the one hit with the hardest penalties -- it was relegated to a lower division, Serie B, for three years -- saw ticket revenue decline more than 20 percent in the years following the penalties.

But the scandal was far from a death knell. Within years of its reinstatement, Juventus' average attendance once again led Serie A. In June of last year, Serie A signed a new TV rights deal with Sky Italia and Mediaset that was worth more than 100 million euros more per season than the deal that preceded it.

"People who are sports fans are fans of the sport," UCF's Crepeau said. "I just think we all love sports. I think it's about the game and the here and now."