Three Media Dispatches on NFL Ratings Slide Avoid Kaepernick, Anthem Antics

October 16th, 2016 9:39 PM

As the National Football League's Week 6 went into full swing Sunday, it has become clear that its TV ratings plunge is real, serious, and having a bottom-line impact. At the same time, there's a growing determination in the establishment press to avoid citing the "(Colin) Kaepernick effect" of player protests during the playing of the national anthem as a contributing factor.

It's one thing to bring the anthem topic up and then try to dismiss it. It's quite another to pretend it isn't there, despite polling which, for all of its potential shortcomings, indicates that there has been clear fan outrage over the antics of Kaepernick and other players during the season's opening weeks. Recent lengthy items in the Washington Post and at two other national outlets don't even contain Kaepernick's name or the word "anthem."

The Washington Post's Friday evening item (HT Gateway Pundit) is the worst offender.

In over 1,000 words, Post business reporter Drew Harwell cited almost every conceivable cause under the sun except fan outrage over the anthem antics for the NFL's sharp ratings decline, while seemingly pretending that a longer-term development — "more Americans abandoning traditional TV" — came into being all of a sudden this year:

NFL ratings plunge could spell doom for traditional TV

... now, the NFL is seeing its ratings tumble in the same way that the Olympics, awards shows and other live events have, falling more than 10 percent for the first five weeks of the season compared with the first five weeks of last season. A continued slide, executives say, could pose an even bigger danger: If football can’t survive the new age of TV, what can?

... The explosion of modern entertainment options, offered on more devices and at any time, has splintered American audiences and sped TV’s decline, (senior vice president at Magna Global Brian) Hughes said. “Sports seemed to be immune from it — it was live, the last bastion of broadcast television. But [the world] has caught up to it now.”

And we're supposed to believe that all of this happened out of the blue this year, after all-time ratings records last season?


Network and league executives are scrambling to identify causes. Many have pointed to the highly televised 2016 presidential campaign, which has led cable-news ratings to explode.

Election years often thin sports ratings, but the NFL has never seen a drop as dramatic as this year’s, Nielsen data shows. In 2008, for example, ratings over the course of the year declined 2 percent, and in 2000 they declined 10 percent. During the first five weeks of this year, ratings have declined 15 percent compared with the entirety of last year.

... The games are now available at more times than ever, including afternoons and evenings on Thursday, Sunday and Monday, which analysts said could fragment the market.

Harwell is wrong about the schedule. Only Week 1 had two Monday games; every other week has just one. Except for the traditional Thanksgiving Day three-game exception, there will be only one Thursday night game each week this year. Regular Thursday night games have been around since 2006, and the more frequent appearances of Thursday night games on network TV during the past two years didn't lead to concerns about saturation — until now. One new item: The NFL will have a Saturday game in Week 15, and yes, that seems like overkill.

Returning to Harwell's column:

... Football last year was still TV’s biggest golden goose, with the ­Super Bowl and other games locking in many of the most-watched hours on air.

... Though it still dominates the country’s leisure time, traditional TV viewership has rapidly dwindled. Since 2010, the time Americans spend watching TV has dropped 11 percent, Nielsen data shows. For people younger than 24, their TV time has plunged more than 40 percent ...

... The networks do not make enough ad revenue to fully cover those arrangements, according to an industry estimate provided by Magna. But they believe the promotional halo of having NFL games leading viewers into other programming makes the deals worth it. Falling viewership, however, could drive down ad revenue, making the networks’ calculations harder to defend, Hughes said.

While acknowledging that the long-term trends aren't the NFL's friends, Harwell is citing what has happened during the past six years. The NFL's ratings grew during five of those six years despite these trends — until this year. So something else is going on. What is it, Drew?

The danger to the "promotional halo" Harwell cited should be causing major alarm in the NFL, but its leadership is apparently too blinded by political correctness and social justice warrior pressure to see it.

Recent polls are not the NFL's friends:

(Quinnipiac University, October 11)

Despite a 4-1 approval among black adults, all American adults disapprove 54 - 38 percent of athletes refusing to stand during the National Anthem in protest of perceived police violence against the black community ...

White adults disapprove of the protests 63 - 30 percent, as black adults approve 74 - 17 percent ...

(Rasmussen, October 4)

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that nearly one-third (32%) of American Adults say they are less likely to watch an NFL game because of the growing number of Black Lives Matter protests by players on the field. Only 13% say they are more likely to watch a game because of the protests. Just over half (52%) say the protests have no impact on their viewing decisions.

But as with most questions involving race, blacks and whites have sharply different reactions. Twenty-eight percent (28%) of blacks say they are more likely to tune into an NFL game because of the protests, compared to eight percent (8%) of whites and 16% of other minority Americans. Whites are twice as likely as blacks – 36% to 18% - to say they are less likely to watch this year, and 29% of other minorities agree.

Though one could make a case that some of those in the "watch more" and "watch less" crowds are blowing off steam and don't really mean it, the 19-point differential (32 percent vs. 13 percent) between those who will watch less vs. more cited by Rasmussen is far more than minor (Quinnipiac did not ask that question). I would argue that the "watch more" crowd has a high component of people who are already frequent NFL viewers, and that their ability to actually increase the number of hours they spend watching games is limited.

If the NFL's audience declines beyond a certain point, the networks are going to recognize that this "promotional halo," which I believe has always been hugely overrated at least since the arrival of cable TV, isn't there any more, and will reduce their bids for future broadcasting rights so that they justify themselves on their own merits.

Large numbers of fans concluding that the NFL is no longer the signature element of Americana that it once was, and becoming former fans as a result or even treating it as just another sport for occasional entertainment, could be the straw that breaks the halo, so to speak. Yet Harwell completely avoided very real fan outrage over players' anthem antics.

So did the Associated Press. In a Saturday story updated Sunday morning, the AP also looked at the ratings decline without referencing Kaepernick's or others' anthem protests. The wire service even referred to a recent memo from the NFL to team owners, and failed to mention the part of that very memo which claimed that the protests aren't having an effect (better not to mention it all, lest readers learn that the problem is worrisome enough to deserve a comment from the league). A longer version of the AP story carried at the New York Times also had no mention of Kaepernick or the anthem protests.

On October 6, Bloomberg News published a story on how the league's ratings decline is starting to have immediate bottom-line effect.

Despite the possibility that the anthem antics of Kaepernick and others are at least having a short-term impact, reporters Gerry Smith and Lucas Shaw, in a story about what is happening in the short-term, still didn't cite them:

Fewer NFL Viewers Force TV Networks to Give Away Ads

TV networks are giving away more commercial time this NFL season than a year ago to make up for one of the worst ratings declines in a decade, a rare sign of weakness for the biggest draw on television.

... the presidential election diverted viewers to cable news outlets ...

... So far this NFL season, TV networks have missed their estimates by about 20 percent, requiring them to offer advertisers what the industry calls “make-goods,” according to one ad buyer who asked not to be identified discussing private information.

... The networks point out that they offer make-goods every year, and can do so without hurting their revenue. That’s because NFL ad rates are so high, and there are so many games, that inventory rarely sells out, leaving a cushion of unsold commercial time to make it up to advertisers, one ad buyer said.

The argument the Bloomberg pair cited in the final excerpted paragraph is disingenuous. What if the networks run out of make-good slots because they've already given all of them away? Absent ad-rate price cuts next year, what if the "cushion of unsold commercial time" increases next year after a bad 2016-2017 season?

Thus, the press is giving substantial cover to the NFL to continue to ignore a festering problem. Since when did that become part of its mission?

Cross-posted at