From Papa John to Jerry Jones (who may be in cahoots) to our nation’s President, there have been lots of theories espoused that national anthem protests are the major contributing factor in NFL ratings, which, as you may have heard, are in decline. However, the data continues to not quite support that argument. The latest analysis of the NFL ratings trend comes from the Wall Street Journal, which is not exactly known as a liberal bastion:
A recent HBO Real Sports/Marist poll showed that 84% of Trump supporters believe the NFL should require players to stand for the anthem; only 27% of Democrats hold that view. Yet there is no evidence of a significant red-state boycott, according to data compiled for The Wall Street Journal by measurement firm Samba TV, which analyzes data from 13.5 million smart TVs across the country. Through seven weeks, the share of TVs tuning in to NFL games was down 8.7%, on average, in the “red states” while in blue states viewing was down 10%.
The story quotes Fox Sports research executive Michael Mulvihill as saying that “The anthem protests have been less a factor than some people have claimed. Even though [Mr. Trump] elevated the issue, you haven’t seen a negative impact.”
Mulvihill has held this belief consistently. After last season he told SBJ’s John Ourand that more people than ever watched the NFL, but did so for less time, which contradicted the idea that there was a boycott rather than, say, stiffer competition from politics for viewers’ attention.
The WSJ piece follows a similar trend of network executives attributing oversaturation of football windows. The expansion to Thursday night every week has really made watching football feel like a full-time job. If you’re a sportswriter and that is your full-time job that’s one thing, but if you have a different job and a family, the NFL is gonna have to give you something more compelling than Bills-Jets in a standalone spot to command appointment viewing.
The decline in viewership boils down to a myriad of factors, so don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you it’s just one thing. The league has lost three of its most visible stars — Aaron Rodgers, JJ Watt, and Odell Beckham Jr. — to injury, and in some ways is still reeling from the retirement of Peyton Manning, who was far and away the league’s most popular player and a rare figure capable of delivering a huge viewership number on his own.
Teams in big markets like the Giants, Jets, and Bears aren’t particularly exciting. Contrast that with MLB, which had the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs in the Final Four. The NBA is in the midst of a renaissance; as anybody who tracks web traffic could tell you their dynamic stars and comparatively inconsequential conflicts are resonating. The Jump is beating NFL Live in viewership on many weekdays during football season, which would’ve been unfathomable even a year ago.
The NFL is actually down less than primetime network TV, which suggests that viewing habits are changing with technology. In the WSJ piece, NBC Sports head Mark Lazarus makes the point that ubiquitous highlights enable some fans who are inclined to follow the important moments in games without actually watching them. I don’t think that evidence suggests that the Red Zone Channel is materially eating into the viewership of network broadcasts, but I do know that its existence is crack and, to me, makes all but the most compelling standalone games feel like diet soda in comparison.
And, I do think Anthem protests have had a modest impact on the margins. As crazy as it seems to me that people are more upset with non-violent protests of racial injustices as disrespectful to the troops than many of the bureaucratic indignities that veterans must endure to obtain legitimate care, negative sentiment about the kneeling has really begun to impact the NFL’s brand. It doesn’t feel like divisive politics are going anywhere anytime soon.
Even still, the NFL is still LEAPS AND BOUNDS ahead of every other sport in terms of revenue and relevance, and will remain that way for some time. Nevertheless, just because you can’t take NFL ratings and distill the decline into one factor, and just because the NFL is still ahead of every other sport, doesn’t mean the stakeholders like moving backwards. A 15% decline over two years is nothing to sneeze at, and I have no idea what they could even do to reverse the downward trend.