The steady decline in NFL television ratings has been the biggest story of the football season, and arguably the biggest sports-business story of 2016. It’s clear that interest in watching primetime NFL games has waned, but what remains unclear are the exact causes, and which causes have had the largest impact.
New reports suggest that one factor dismissed by many has in fact had a definite impact: player protests during the national anthem, led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The election wasn’t the only problem
Four weeks into the season, the NFL blamed the ratings dip on the “attention around our presidential election, which is unprecedented.” That explanation looked sound after Week 10, when ratings for the first Sunday Night Football game after the election finally rose 13% compared to the year before. The matchup of the New England Patriots vs Seattle Seahawks got the best rating for a Week 10 Sunday night game since 2011.
But the trend did not reverse for good, and the NFL’s ratings crisis is anything but over.
Week 11 was a mixed bag, with Thursday night and Sunday night up over the year before, but Monday night down. Week 12 was worse, with both Thursday and Sunday down, and only Monday up.
Ratings fell precipitously in Week 13, which just wrapped up on Monday. Sunday Night Football declined and Monday Night Football majorly declined. Only Thursday’s game, between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings, saw a ratings increase over the same game the year before.
Prior to the election, the average number of games watched was down 9.6% compared to 2015, as Fox Sports programming SVP Michael Mulvihill points out. Since the election, that drop is smaller, but still significant, at 4.9%. In addition to watching fewer games, people are tuning out earlier from the games they do watch. Average minutes watched per game was down 4.5% before the election, and still down 3.1% since. (These numbers apply through Week 12.)
In other words, it wasn’t just the election.
Fans (and Trump) blame Kaepernick for NFL ratings dip
Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem during the NFL preseason as a protest to injustices against people of color, and he has done so in every game this season. More than 40 football players have followed Kaepernick’s lead, either by taking a knee, sitting on the bench, or standing with a raised fist, including stars like Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster, and New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett. And athletes outside of football have joined the protests, like U.S. Women’s soccer team star Megan Rapinoe. But Kaepernick remains the face of the protests.
Every time Yahoo Finance has written about the NFL ratings decline, Yahoo readers have shouted in our comments and on Twitter that the biggest reason for the decline is Kaepernick’s anthem protests. “I can tell you why, it is because diehard fans like me have been insulted by the owners and the NFL allowing these players to kneel or sit during the national anthem,” one reader wrote. “TOTAL DISRESPECT to America. WE are protesting. I have not watched a game this year yet.” Another reader wrote, “When the players stop disrespecting this nation and our Flag then I might start watching games again.”
Many readers flooded me personally on Twitter with direct messages to hammer home the point. “You can try and hide what happened,” said one. “We have reduced watching the NFL as long as they support the disrespect to our flag. Just tell NFL America is taking a knee.” Another wrote “There’s only one reason the ratings are in the trash. Colin Kaepernick 7.”
Donald Trump agrees. At a rally in Colorado in October, he said “the NFL is way down” and pointed to the campaign and Kaepernick. “Honestly, we’ve taken a lot of people away from the NFL,” he said. “And the other reason is Kaepernick.” The crowd loudly booed at mention of the quarterback.
Sports poll shows fans blame Kaepernick above all else
At first blush it may be hard to believe a small personal act that takes place before games even begin is causing people to boycott the league. As many outlets wrote early on, there was no hard evidence that any significant number of people were boycotting their watching of the NFL because of their outrage at the protests.
“No analysis exists to support claims of a boycott,” Variety wrote. And the NFL, in a memo to its media committee, wrote: “We see no evidence that concern over player protests during the National Anthem is having any material impact on our ratings.”
But the Seton Hall Sports Poll begs to differ.
In late October, a poll of 841 adults by phone (conducted by the Sharkey Institute at Seton Hall University) found that when asked to weigh in on seven possible contributing factors to the NFL ratings decline, 56% of respondents said “yes” to the anthem protests as a factor. The respondents were asked to respond yes or no to each factor separately, rather than rank the importance of each factor. More people said yes to the protests than any other factor; the second-highest was the distraction of the presidential election.
Seton Hall conducted another poll the next month, and asked the question a little differently. The new findings again point to player protests as “a turnoff” for NFL fans. Of 913 people surveyed by phone, 23% said they are watching fewer NFL games. Those people were then asked why they are watching fewer games, and 25% said it’s the national anthem protests.
The other options were too many commercials (10%), weaker matchups (10%), too many games overall (8%) and interest in the election (3%). “The anthem protest still seems to resonate most loudly,” said Rick Gentile, director of the poll.
Of course, respondents to a poll can lie. Look no further than the presidential election polls, which predicted almost across the board, with only two or three exceptions, that Hillary Clinton would win. One of the most popular theories as to why the polls got it so wrong was the existence of “shy Trump voters” who did not choose to say, when polled, that they were planning to vote for Donald Trump.
Shawne Merriman, a well-known veteran linebacker who left the league in 2012, does not approve of Kaepernick’s anthem protest, but dismisses the idea that it has hurt ratings. “That’s garbage,” he tells Yahoo Finance. “I don’t approve of him doing it, and if I was his teammate, I would be pissed off. But I respect his right to do it. I don’t believe one bit that NFL ratings dropped because of that. We only hear from the angry people, who tweet these things or write these things in the comments on stories, and they’re just so avid that people think it’s a large number of people, but it’s not. You hear from them over and over again so you might think it’s the consensus, but it’s not the consensus. It’s like people who said everyone hates Trump. Well, how the hell did he win the election if everyone hates Trump?”
Merriman’s theory is that ratings are down because the NFL has cracked down on player touchdown celebrations. Players like Josh Norman and Antonio Brown have been fined by the league for the way they’ve celebrated.
“It would be short-sighted and dismissive to say it’s having no impact”
Elizabeth Lindsey, who works on NFL sponsorship deals at Wasserman, believes the protests have been a ratings factor. “I do think some of the player protests probably offended some people,” she tells Yahoo Finance. “I can’t go as far as to say that it’s the definitive reason, but I think it would be short-sighted and dismissive to say it’s having no impact. I think it’s something people should pay attention to. It’s worthy of considering as an issue.”
To be sure, the factors for declining ratings are numerous: the election (up until Nov. 8); the rise of cord-cutting; the proliferation of clips and highlight videos on social media as an alternative to watching a whole game; an increase in penalties during the game; disgust over the league’s ongoing head injury crisis, which was the subject of a big-budget Will Smith film, “Concussion,” last year; potential fatigue from NFL games happening three nights a week.
The player protests are just one of these many factors, and it’s impossible to say just how big a factor. It’s possible that the protests are the very smallest factor. But there is enough evidence now to at least say that the effect of the protests is not zero. They are contributing to the ratings decline.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.