Ratings Deflategate

Forbes.com reports on a disturbance in the National Football League force:

I have been writing for a while that the protests of the national anthem by NFL players was hurting the league’s television ratings.

Some scoffed at me, while others said hold on, it’s way too early. And others wrote recently that there was no reason to believe ratings would contintue to dorp.

But I believe the league has alienated many fans who either do not want politics to enter their NFL experience, or simply are disgusted with players being disrespectful of our national anthem.

We are almost finished with week four of the 2016 season and Sunday Night Football, while still the top rated show of the evening last night, are getting worse each week.

The numbers are even worst when compared with last year.

As reported this morning by Deadline Hollywood, the SNF game with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs on NBC came in with a preliminary 6.1 rating and 16.68 million viewers  in the early numbers. Last year’s week four SNF contest between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints drew a 14.1 rating and 24.2 million viewers.

That’s a drop of almost one-third year over year.

More bad news for the league: Sunday Antonio Cromartie, the former Jets cornerback who became the first member of the Colts to join the Colin Kaepernick-led protest last week, raised his fist and kneeled during “The Star-Spangled Banner” Sunday at London’s Wembley Stadium.

Meanwhile, president Obama weighed into the debate over the national anthem protests sweeping across the US a few days ago, saying he hoped it would  prompt Americans to listen to others’ concerns and not just go into separate corners.

But neither the protesters, NFL or the president apparently get it. Many viewers have had enough!

The Washington Times adds:

Nearly one-third of American adults say they are less likely to watch a National Football League game because of the growing number of Black Lives Matter protests that are happening by players on the field, a Rasmussen poll found.

Thirty-two percent polled online and by telephone said they’re willing to skip NFL games this year because of player protests over racial issues, the pollster said on Tuesday. Only 13 percent said they were more likely to watch the games because of the protests, and 52 percent said the protests had no impact on their viewing decisions.

Twenty-eight percent of African Americans said they were more likely to tune-into an NFL game because of the protests, compared to 8 percent of whites and 16 percent of other Americans, the poll found.

Whites were twice as likely as blacks to say they are less likely to watch this year. …

The NFL, which has refused to do anything about the protests, has had its ratings collapse this season. Although some have blamed blow-out contests, and others point to the presidential election, some see the protests and #boycottNFL online campaigns as the root of the ratings free-fall.

The stupid thing is that it’s very easy for the NFL to do something about the protest without abrogating players’ First Amendment rights — tell teams to play the National Anthem while the players are in the locker room.

By now, though, that’s only going to deal with the first symptom. For one thing, the media is chiming in, as SI.com reported:

Numerous members of the NFL media made a show of support Sunday for players who have been kneeling during the national anthem. In unison at 1 P.M. ET, they tweeted: “I stand with those who kneel.”

The act of kneeling, which 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began in the preseason, has become a widespread practice throughout the league for players protesting racial inequality and police brutality in America. Among those who tweeted their support for the kneeling players include The MMQB’s Peter King, The Nation’s Dave Zirin and ESPN’s Jim Trotter.

None of those aforementioned sportswriters, nor any other I’m aware of (the Forbes writer is a sports business reporter), have chimed in on the NFL’s dropping ratings, as far as I know. Which is rather gutless of them.

Unless, of course, to quote Gertrude Stein, who wrote of Oakland that “there’s no there there,” the theory falls apart under evidence: Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch:

In a particularly troubling trend, ratings for Monday Night Football were down 19% prior to Monday’s Giants-Vikings game, including the lowest-ever viewership in the history of the series when just 8.047 million viewers watched the Saints-Falcons. (That game went head-to-head with the first Presidential debate.) The Giants-Vikings drew a 9.1 overnight rating on Monday, which was the highest MNF overnight of the year. That’s the good news. The bad news? It was still down 8% from the 9.9 for last year’s Week 4 matchup (Seahawks-Lions) that didn’t feature the New York market.

More troubling data: NBC’s Sunday Night Football drew an 11.0 overnight for Steelers-Chiefs on Sunday, down 26% from the same window last year with the Saints-Cowboys. That’s an alarming drop, even with Dallas as the NFL’s best television draw and a blowout game. (The NBC Sports p.r. department said in a release that the Steelers’ 22–0 first quarter was the most-lopsided opening quarter in 155 NBC SNF games. One can admire the rapid response team, but you can’t spin lemonade out of tomato juice.)

On Sunday, per Sports Business Daily, Fox led all Week 4 NFL broadcast windows with a 14.8 overnight rating thanks to the Cowboys-49ers, but that number was down 10% for the comparable Week 4 matchup last year.

CBS did see an increase on Sunday, drawing a 10.6 for its singleheader window, up 2% from a 10.4 in 2015, per SBD.

So what’s up? Well, one theory making the rounds—and it’s very plausible—is that the craziness of this Presidential election campaign has siphoned viewers (particularly males) away from football. In a terrific piece by Sports Business Journal reporters John Ourand and Austin Karp, two of the sharpest observers of sports television ratings, the reporters detailed how the news networks—Fox News, CNN and MSNBC—have gained significant viewers against the losses of the sports networks. One of the executives quoted in the SBJ piece was Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’s senior vice president of programming and research, who said that the opening weeks of the NFL season reminded him of the fall of 2000, the only year from 2000 to 2010 where all four NFL TV packages dropped from the previous year and a year which saw a very tightly contested Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Interestingly, Ourand and Karp pointed out that World Series viewership dropped by 22% in 2000, mirroring some big events this year (such as the Summer Olympics) and long-running series (Sunday Night Baseball), which had big drops in viewership.

Personally, I’m buying what Mulvihill is selling. I believe the hyper-insanity of the political news cycle and the reality show nature of Trump’s candidacy has taken some viewers away from sports. I don’t think it’s the sole reason, but I think it’s a big one. What would back up this thesis would be an uptick in the NFL ratings from the middle of November to the end of the season.

I’m also of the belief that the league has been hurt this year by a number of factors including a smaller group of star quarterbacks (no Peyton Manning or Tom Brady), an awful set ofMonday Night Football games, a potential slowing down in fantasy football growth, some fatigue from what Mark Cuban discussed as the NFL expanding its television package to an additional night, and some truly awful games on Sunday.

There’s also this: Nothing goes up forever, and the NFL was due for some sort of ratings correction.

There are those who posit that the migration to digital services and cord-cutting from television are responsible for the drops, and long-term this will impact the ratings, for sure. But the shift this year feels too dramatic for that to be the primary reason. Plus, if you look at the overall viewership numbers on, say, Twitter’s broadcasts of the NFL, they are minimal.

I think the big tell will be how the NFL does from the middle of November to the end of the regular season. The election will have passed (we hope), and the winter weather will keep many at home on Sundays. If the ratings are flat versus 2015 or tick up during the last six weeks of the NFL’s regular season, you’ll know the Presidential election campaign had a lot to do with it. If not, well, then we’ll re-examine some other theories.

Deitsch doesn’t explain why people would watch more news and less sports. (One political answer: Political commercials during games.) I suppose we’ll know by Thanksgiving (assuming the presidential campaign and/or a Cubs World Series win hasn’t brought on the Apocalypse) whether Deitsch’s theory is correct.

Anyone who has spent time in business knows that businesses that don’t listen to their customers go out of business. To be blunt, what the players think is rather meaningless, because they are very replaceable. The First Amendment, remember, protects government’s incursion on your free speech rights, not necessarily anyone else’s (including your employer). Viewers not watching or fans not going to games affects the bottom line, which is what the entertainment business is all about.

 

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