One high-profile fan, who happens to be the Republican presidential candidate, thinks he — and Colin Kaepernick — are to blame.
“I don’t know if you know — the NFL is way down in their ratings,” Donald Trump told a Greeley, Colo., crowd Sunday. “And you know why? Two reasons. Number one is this politics, they’re finding, is a much rougher game than football, and more exciting. And this, honestly, we’ve taken a lot of people away from the NFL.”
Trump, during the January NFL playoff games, had lamented that the NFL had “become soft like our country has become soft.” Although he initially complained about schedule conflicts between debates with Hillary Clinton and NFL games, the Sept. 26 debate easily trounced “Monday Night Football” among viewers.
Trump went on to point out another possibility Sunday. “And the other reason,” he said, “is Kaepernick. Kaepernick.”
That would be Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who refuses to stand for the national anthem to raise awareness of racial injustice. It’s a movement that, with varying gestures, has spread across the NFL, the NBA, WNBA, soccer, college and high school sports. A Yahoo poll bears that out, but the answer is probably much more complex. Some of the reasons posited include: Prime-time games that have not been terribly exciting; too many penalties; the possibility that people are turning away from football as concussion awareness increases; and the fact that every sport has a saturation point, which the NFL may have reached with games three days a week. There also happens to be a sea change in the media, with games being consumed in a number of ways other than good ol’ network TV.
Whatever the reason, and it’s probably a bit of this and that, the drop has been dramatic. Goodell, in an interview with Gary Myers on WFAN last week, said the league powers had reached no conclusions about what was going on. “I don’t think anybody can do that,” Goodell said. “We don’t dismiss any theory, if you want to call it that.”
A little more than a week ago, he said he didn’t think anthem protests were to blame, telling reporters: “It’s not a factor. It’s not having any significant impact on our ratings.”
At that time, he pointed to the league’s need to adapt.
“We don’t make excuses, we look at it and we try and figure out what’s changing. I think you’re touching at a point that I think is significant, which is consumer changes and their behavior, and the way they consume media. That’s something we’ve been focused on for several years. It’s why we’ve been doing more with Snapchat and YouTube and others. And it’s why we did our work with Yahoo last year,” he told reporters recently. ” . . . We’re seeing these changes. We recognize that network television is still dominant, and we believe it’s going to be dominant going forward. It’s where the vast majority of our fans view our games. It’s a great experience. The advertising markets are incredibly strong. I think our ratings are something that we’ll continue to look at and trying to make sure we’re doing everything, not just to get them to tune in but to get them to stay tuned in. That’s the issue, that’s what we’ve worked on.”
Whatever the causes, the NFL believes it has the luxury of time in which to figure things out. As for Kaepernick, he continues his protests and doubts that he is affecting viewership. That was disputed to a degree by a recent Yahoo survey that showed that, of 1,136 Americans who identified as NFL fans, 29 percent said they watched fewer NFL games this season and 40 percent of those viewers named Kaepernick’s protests as the reason. That correlates to about 11.6 percent of all fans surveyed.
“I don’t know much about ratings and how they are affected and all of those things,” Kaepernick told the Sacramento Bee. “But I don’t understand why ratings would go down, fighting for justice for people, to try to stop oppression, especially in a league that is predominantly black.”
Soon enough, the election will be over and the games will have meaningful postseason implications. We’ll see what happens then.