Super Bowl 52, a close thriller between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, drew 103.4 million total viewers—enough to land it in the 10 most-watched US television events ever, but a 7% drop from last year’s Super Bowl. That matches the nearly 10% average ratings decline the NFL saw during this year’s regular season. Suffice it to say: many NFL fans watched less NFL this season, a trend that continued all the way through the Super Bowl.
In a new survey, UBS asked people why, and found that the most commonly cited reason was the player political protests that happened during the playing of the national anthem. (No player kneeled at the Super Bowl.)
The bank’s UBS Evidence Lab surveyed 2,000 American consumers and roughly 800 said they watch the NFL. Of that group, 17.5% said they watched less NFL this season than in the past. Of those people who watched less NFL, 50% chose “don’t approve of the national anthem protests,” the No. 1 most popular response. (Some critics have taken issue with calling them “anthem protests” since it suggests the players were protesting the anthem.) Keep in mind that respondents were allowed to select multiple answers.
Even though the protests were the most popular reason of the options UBS gave, it was not necessarily every individual’s biggest reason, since the survey didn’t ask people what their main driver was; it asked them to choose all answers that applied.
The No. 2 most popular reason was that people were simply not as interested in professional football this year.
UBS ran this same survey last year, and the protests answer saw the largest increase since last year of any choice. UBS also found that “follow the games and scores online” (instead of by watching the games on TV) saw big growth over last year, reinforcing the macro trend of cable cord-cutting.
Colin Kaepernick, who first started the kneeling protests as a way to bring attention to police brutality, did not play in the NFL this season. But a number of players took up his mantle and continued the kneeling, prompting President Trump to make the NFL a major talking point over the past few months, tweeting throughout the season about the league and criticizing team owners for allowing players to kneel. By November, a Seton Hall University poll found that 71% of people wanted Trump to “stay out of it.”
Nonetheless, UBS reinforces in its note the fact that the Super Bowl is “still the biggest game in town.” The 103.4 million viewers of Super Bowl 52, UBS notes, is more viewers than the most recent Academy Awards (33 million), World Series Game 7 (28 million), and College Football Championship (28 million) combined.
Adding to the idea that the NFL is doing just fine despite the ratings decline is that Fox outbid CBS and NBC for the rights to the next five years of Thursday Night Football.