One of the great mysteries surrounding the controversy over San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to sit (or kneel) through the National Anthem at the beginning of his team's games (while wearing socks during practices depicting police as pigs) has been the National Football League's nonchalant response.
Perhaps the league thought that the matter would blow over in a week or two if it indulged Kaepernick, which it certainly did with its "it's his right" response, accompanied by no visible reminder that his actions and the actions of other players have the potential to damage the league's standing, reputation and popularity. The league also must have thought that Kaepernick's protest wouldn't be imitated by other players. This was a major miscalculation, and it's showing signs of hurting the league where it really counts — in the pocketbook.
The league's ratings for the first week of the regular season are in. They were down significantly, virtually across the board.
Those who are looking to justify the drop because of the teams involved or the competitiveness of the related games aren't going to find much solace. The only refuge against deep concern for what has happened is that full-season NFL ratings in 2012 were down 4 percent from 2011. It seems like a thin argument, but one might blame that drop in 2012 on that year's presidential election campaign, and then contend that we're seeing the same thing this year, perhaps even moreso because there is no incumbent candidate.
Mike Florio at NBC Sports didn't cite the election campaign as a possible factor. He speculated that "the National Anthem controversy" might be one factor having an impact, but also noticed one team which bucked the tide:
Transcript (bolds are mine throughout this post):
The NFL continues to be the dominant presence an American sports, one of the few things that can draw a large audience together in real time. So many other shows are recorded, watched later, binge-watched, etc.
You watch NFL games live. It's not the same if you know the outcome of the game. Sure you go back and try to see what different guys are doing, and there's some entertainment value that way. But by and large it's a game that you indulge in live.
Well, there's some bad news for the NFL. Week 1 of 2016 in comparison to week 1 of 2015 — in most situations, numbers down. Thursday night opener, down. Sunday night opener, down. Monday night games, down.
And the most glaring example, Vikings-49ers, the Week 1 Monday night final game in 2015 — the audience was 4 million lower for the Week 1 Monday night final game this year when it was Rams-49ers. I'd like to think when you swap out Vikings for Rams with the Rams in LA, the audience would be 4 million larger, not 4 million smaller.
The only area where there was a gain was in the late afternoon Sunday slot, because it was Cowboys-Giants on Fox instead of Ravens-Broncos on CBS. And there's something about the Cowboys that draws people in, even though they've struggled for 20 years. They haven't even been to the NFC championship game since 1995. They still bring in the eyeballs.
Other than that, though, the NFL, maybe some signs of slipping. And, why is that? Is it because of the National Anthem controversy? Is it because of head injuries? Is it just that the NFL has finally maxed out and is plateauing? Is Mark Cuban right, pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered?
And in this respect, the NFL spends a lot of time thinking about playing football games in other countries, because the NFL believes it has fully saturated United States.
Is this the first bit of hard evidence that maybe the NFL should be less concerned about London, and Mexico City, and China, and other locations beyond our borders and focus more on soaking more water into the sponge that they thought was fully saturated, but based on what we saw in Week 1, maybe it's not.
Florio's "soaking more water into the sponge" analogy is cute, but a better one might involve plugging leaks in a boat that's taking on water.
That Monday night late game "just so happens" to be the one where Kaepernick's team participated. But he didn't play, even when his team was comfortably ahead. The 49ers quarterback was recently described as a "still ... regressing quarterback" by a San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter who at the same time lauded the "courage of his convictions."
Florio had to know that this year's Kaepernick's team was in the second Monday night game, and thus chose not to make the drop-dead obvious linkage.
According to SportsBusiness Daily, the ratings for the early game dropped from 9.8 in 2015 (Eagles-Falcons) to 9.1 for Steelers-Washington. The late game had an even bigger decline, with last year’s Vikings-49ers 9.5 shrinking to 7.1 for Rams-49ers.
Yes, with the Rams back in the nation’s No. 2 media market, the audience for a game that swapped out Minnesota for L.A. from one year to the next saw a 2.4-point drop in ratings. Via Richard Deitsch of SI.com, the total audience fell from 14.3 million to 10.3 million.
To be fair, there are several other factors at work in the 25 percent (based on rating points) to 28 percent (based on audience) drop.
The game was on ESPN, which has been beset by an overall reduction in its subscriber base because of the "cord-cutting" phenomenon, where cable TV subscribers are seeking their entertainment and information elsewhere. ESPN, though, has been sabotaging itself, alienating sports fans who resent the network's ever-increasing bows and sellouts to political correctness. That said, it would be absurd to claim that the presence of Kaepernick's team had no impact on the ratings dive.
Many other players on several other teams chose to follow Kaepernick's example at other NFL opening games. Thus, among the choices Florio presented as to why the NFL had a weak opening week, Hot Air's Ed Morrissey picked the National Anthem controversy as the primary factor:
The lesson? If the NFL doesn’t want to provide an escape, then fans will create their own escape.
Florio's citation of the endurance of interest in the Cowboys is also quite interesting. Perhaps the Cowboys, for all of their considerable on-field and off-field problems over the years, are still followed by so many football fans around the country because of attitudes like the one owner Jerry Jones recently expressed:
NFL players have followed 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's lead and decided not to stand during the playing of the national anthem.
That doesn't sit too well with Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones.
"I got to give a big pat on the back to our entire team, our coaching staff, our entire organization," Jones said Tuesday during a radio interview with KRLD-FM, the Cowboys' flagship station. "We strongly, strongly support the flag in every way we support — and it’s almost ridiculous to be saying it — the people who for generations and generations have given it all up so that we can get out here and show off in front of millions of people on television.
"We respect that so much. That’s the real business. The forum of the NFL and the forum on television is a very significant thing. I’m for it being used in every way we can to support the great, great contributors in our society, and that’s people that have supported America, the flag, and there’s no reason not to go all out right there. And for anybody to use parts of that visibility to do otherwise is really disappointing."
Well. How 'bout 'dem Cowboys?
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.