I had a good piece written about this last week. I swear to you that I did. I ran a question about why people were watching less NFL games than they were in the previous year, and I listed out all the possible reasons. My main goal was to see if the anthem protests really were as big of a deal as a lot of people in the media were making them out to be. Did fans really care?
And, what I found was that while they did care, the fans that followed the game most closely were almost equally likely to say that issues with the telecasts being too long / having too many commercials, and issues with the rule changes to make the game less physical were the primary reasons they watch less. My conclusion was that the NFL could probably stop the bleeding in their ratings without having to resort to the delicate matter of trying to control player speech—and court cases that will likely result from doing so.
Seriously. I had charts and everything. Look:
Then this weekend happened, and the piece I had written and the data I had thought I was proactively gathering became moot. I have a lot of doubts that anyone reading this doesn’t already know what happened, but just in case you’ve somehow missed it: at a rally in Alabama, President Trump said that anyone who kneels during a game should be fired from the team (he used more colorful language than that, but this is a family blog). In response, NFL players responded with demonstrations before games on Sunday and last night’s Monday telecast. What was initially a fairly small movement with a few players kneeling had exploded, with entire teams kneeling together and the Steelers even opting to just stay in the locker room during the anthem.
As you can probably guess, that had a non-trivial effect on the reasons folks are tuning in to games a bit less.
Consumers saying that anthem protests were the main reason they were watching less NFL games nearly doubled after this weekend’s demonstration. Unsurprisingly, this is pretty clearly a phenomenon that is occurring among party lines.
If we use the “drain the swamp” question as a proxy for President Trump’s supporters, it’s pretty evident that those who are favorable towards the president have drawn their line in the sand with this issue. Meanwhile, those that don’t support or oppose him are considerably less likely to care about the protests, and also much less likely to say that they’re watching less NFL games than they had been.
And, besides the party lines issue, given that the NFL fandom is pretty evenly distributed across the political spectrum, that huge spike in Trump supporter opposition has resulted in a pretty significant change among those who closely follow the NFL.
So, where does that leave the NFL? Your guess is as good as mine, to be honest. Like seemingly everything else in America now, the lines have been drawn pretty clearly, and whatever action the NFL takes will be interpreted as the organization taking a stand on one side of the line or the other. Limit player speech with rule changes, fines, and suspensions? Besides the likely legal issues that may raise (not to mention the possibility of diluting the on-field product by removing talent from the field), one has to wonder if that will be enough to bring the fans who have left back. Allow players to continue their demonstrations? Avoid the legal issues, but likely continue to drive half the country away from the game, which could have further impact on ratings, ad revenues, sponsorships, and the like.
If I were trying to find a silver lining for the NFL, though, I think there is one that you don’t have to dig too far to unearth. While the number of people who said the anthem protests are the main reason they’re watching less games nearly doubled from last week to this week, the number of overall people who say that they are watching less NFL games has not. In other words, this weekend’s demonstration galvanized the viewers who were already leaving the game, and gave them something significant to rally around. But, it didn’t seem to drive anybody new away- at least not yet.
Put another way, those who had already decided to abandon the game now have a consistent rallying cry, but those who had stuck around haven’t been scared off by this past weekend.
We will continue to track this ongoing issue, in order to examine its effects on the sport and its sponsors.