During the 2016 NFL season, something unusual happened: Fewer people tuned in. Broadcasters saw an 8 percent drop in viewership, according to ESPN, a drop that wasn’t unprecedented in a presidential election year but which caused no small amount of head-scratching.
Among the most popular theories for the decline was viewer irritation with national anthem protests initiated by players on the field. Led by then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, some players chose to kneel during the anthem to draw attention to police brutality and other injustices affecting people of color. This was a polarizing move that earned Kaepernick a lot of condemnation, and which quickly got caught up in the swirl of the 2016 election.
On Monday, the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar tweeted a link to an ESPN story that seemed to settle the question, putting the blame for the viewership decline largely at Kaepernick’s feet.
Kraushaar, who often views politics through a more conservative lens, suggested that this result should not have surprised anyone except those living in “an ideological bubble.” But Kraushaar’s tweet was itself a misunderstanding of the results that may have been influenced by his personal beliefs.
The survey at issue comes from J.D. Power, which shared its results with The Washington Post. Here’s the point on which Kraushaar focused: A plurality of respondents who’d watched less football cited the anthem protests as their reason for doing so. It was also the most common response from all respondents to the survey, which included people who were identified as fans of other sports. (The respondents to the poll were people who’d attended at least one game from each sport’s professional league.)
And now all the caveats that undercut Kraushaar’s point.
First, it’s worth noting that fans of other sports indicated that it wasn’t the anthems that caused them to watch fewer games. They indicated that the turnoff was more likely to be the series of stories about players who’d committed domestic abuse that turned them off the game. Among basketball fans, that was joined by concerns about the pace of play.
Second, this was only among those who said they were watching less football. Overall, that was only 10 percent of football fans — which, by the way, was the smallest drop-off of any of the sports. Six-in-10 football fans said they were watching about the same amount of football, while 30 percent said they were watching more. So three times as many football fans said they increased viewership last year than said they watched less.
Meaning that for every one person who said that the national anthem protests turned them off (3 percent of the total), 10 NFL fans were tuning in more.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, J.D. Power confirmed to The Post that the reasons for watching less football were offered as a list for respondents to choose from. In other words, this wasn’t people voluntarily chiming in to say that the anthem protests discouraged them. It was people being asked that question and picking the protests from the list when prompted. What’s more, respondents were also able to pick multiple reasons for their decreased viewership. Given how even the opposition to those protests became a point of political partisanship, that’s significant.
It’s also worth noting that game delays, off-field arrests and the protests were all within the margin of error. Each was about as much a cause for people who tuned out as the other. Left unasked: Reasons people might have tuned in more.
Were there people who stopped watching the NFL because of the protests? Almost certainly. Were the protests the main driver of a significant decline in viewership? That’s not a fair conclusion to draw from this study.
Regardless of your ideological bubble.