Are NFL Ratings Really Down Because Of Politics?

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This morning, The Daily Caller lambasted the half-empty stadium for the Thursday night game between the Los Angeles Rams, who were visiting the San Francisco 49ers:

The San Francisco 49ers Thursday night game against the Los Angeles Rams kicked off in front of a nearly empty stadium.

Los Angeles Times reporter Lindsey Thiry tweeted a photo at the time of kickoff, which showed thousands of open seats. In fact, most sections in the photo have more empty seats than fans.

Indeed, the photos looked just as bad as The Daily Caller implied:


To be fair, Darren Rovell has a point; a crappy matchup between two sub-par teams with a start time just after 5pm on a weekday is a recipe for a low turnout, even among season-ticketholders who paid top dollar for their seats.  Combining a notoriously fickle NFL (and California sports) fanbase with California rush-hour traffic is no recipe to put fans in the seats.

But it’s not just attendance at the stadiums; ratings are down across the NFL, and some have theorized that the league and player stance on US political issues, particularly the BLM protests and anti-police stance exhibited by the league, are to blame.

Though Colin Kaepernick (pictured at this article’s opening) is still unsigned by any NFL team, other players are continuing the “protest” trend that he kick-started.  The Washington Examiner has blamed this as the primary reason behind the ratings decline:

Ratings began to slide last year as then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, which set off a contagion of other players in the NFL who chose to follow suit with similar game-time protests.

A recent J.D. Power survey shows that the national anthem protests are directly to blame for the drop in ratings. The group surveyed a stunning 9,200 fans (a sample of 1,000 is usually used in political polling), and 26 percent of them said they had turned the games off due to the national protests alone.

Since the protests began, the NFL hasn’t been able to contain their players nor the damage caused by their political diatribes. It comes at a time when other media are experiencing the same political outbursts and subsequent drop in ratings.

The Emmy Awards on Sunday night got political from the opening number and as a result, tied with last year’s program for its lowest ratings ever.

So, are NFL ratings declining because of politics?  And his this finally bled over into the attendance at the games themselves?

To start, it is of utmost importance to mention the trend of “cord-cutting” – i.e., cable customers ditching their TV packages altogether for internet only, usually combined with Netflix or other streaming services.  TechCrunch noted how cord-cutting has increased to record levels this year:

Bad news for traditional pay TV: cord cutting is accelerating at a pace faster than previously estimated. According to a new industry report from eMarketer, there will be 22.2 million cord cutters ages 18 and older this year – a figure that’s up 33.2 percent over 2016. The firm said it’s had to revise its forecast as the pace of cord cutting has increased. Previously, it believed there would only be 15.4 million cord cutters in the U.S.

In addition, the so-called “cord-nevers” – meaning those consumers who never choose to subscribe to traditional cable or satellite TV in the first place – is growing, too. While the pace of that growth is slower – a more modest 5.8 percent this year – the total number of cord-nevers is higher. eMarketer says there will be 34.4 million U.S. adult cord-nevers in 2017.

When you combine the cord cutters and cord-nevers, there will be 56.6 million U.S. non-pay TV viewers this year.

While it might not be instinctual to link live sports to cord-cutting, it is a substantial portion of cable bills, as Business Insider points out:

If we look at sports networks available in more than 50% of cable and satellite TV homes, $9.06 of each monthly bill goes to ESPN’s top four networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SEC Network), whether the customer watches those networks or not, according to data from SNL Kagan (via Sports TV Ratings). The Fox Sports family of networks (FS1, FS2, Big Ten Network) are the next most expensive, with customers paying $1.86 each month for those networks combined. The stand-alone NFL Network is the only other sports entity charging more than $1.00 per month.

So a lot of those viewers who might put the game on TV on a slow Thursday night have decided that they would rather not pay for the option in the first place.  While a majority of these are likely the most fickle fans of all, who care little about sports, the NFL has made it increasingly difficult to view its product either with or without cable access (for instance, offering out-of-market games via DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket only).  The NFL’s own actions regarding viewership has certainly led cord-cutting to play a major role ratings decline.

In addition, the dizzying pace of commercials and TV timeouts has turned off many viewers.  The NFL has even acknowledged this, making moves to limit the number of commercials (though not the net duration of ad time):

One big change is a cut in the number of commercial breaks — to four per quarter from five. They’ll be longer so the networks can still sell the same number of commercials but less frequent. There will be 30 percent fewer promotional messages, such as when CBS urges viewers to stick around after the game for “60 Minutes.”

“When you have touchdown, commercial, kickoff, commercial, it becomes unwatchable,” said Andrew Donchin, chief investment officer at Dentsu Aegis Network in the U.S., whose clients include General Motors Co.

Others have theorized that the quality of play, and increasing number of penalties (many of which are designed to improve player safety) has turned viewers off:

Ye gods the Bills at Panthers game was awful to behold, and not just because no touchdown was scored. Dropped passes, missed assignments, overthrown receivers—these guys are paid millions of dollars a year and the owners wallow in public subsidies. How could the result be so crummy? The game is almost over, Carolina leads by the baseball score of 6-3 and faces 3rd-and-goal, and number-one overall draft pick and former MVP Cam Newton badly misses an open receiver, whose catch would have put the contest out of its misery.

This game was so bad, the football gods were looking for something to watch on Netflix. Later in the season Tuesday Morning Quarterback will lay out the mythology of the football gods. My favorite is Lambasthor, god of halftime tirades.

And while many have blamed coverage on hurricanes Harvey and Irma, in addition last year’s Presidential election coverage, for the ratings decline, one has to acknowledge the fact that indeed, the political stance of players and teams has turned NFL fans off.  While there is no hard data on the makeup of NFL fan bases, the demographics certainly point to the conclusion that NFL fan bases are largely a conservative audience, in opposition to the BLM and anti-Trump positions of many of the “protesting” players:

Here are some demographics I found[1] which seem plausible

  • 1 in 4 NFL fans has an income above $100k.
  • 1 in 4 of NFL fans make $40k or less annually.
  • 77% of NFL fans are Caucasian (compared with 62% in the population), with 15% being African-American/Black and 8% being Hispanic.
  • The 55+ age demographic is the largest percentage off the NFL fans demographics at 37% compared with 28% of the US.
  • 55% of NFL fans are men.
  • The Midwest has the highest percentage of fans with the West having the lowest fan-rates (no wonder with all the jerking around of teams).

So NFL fans are wealthier, whiter, more male, and older than the America as a whole. That sounds like the Trump demographic.

So while politics is likely not the only reason for declining NFL ratings, it appears to be just another element in a cascade of problems facing the league that has turned viewers off.

But, what about those stadiums?  Surely the most die-hard fans will show up to watch a game, right?  Maybe, maybe not.

If the team is winning, the stadium will likely be packed out.  But if the team is losing, fans are less likely to show up, even if they bought tickets to the game already.  Take a look at the aforementioned San Francisco 49ers, one of the league’s worst teams this year, and the “stadium experience” at Levi’s Stadium, the team’s brand new state-of-the-art football facility:

Sure looks nice… until you take a look at where it is on the map:

The new stadium is about 45-50 minutes away from downtown San Francisco, before traffic is factored in, and public transit to and from the stadium is virtually nonexistent.  Combine that with lackluster play and sky-high ticket prices (those big new stadiums don’t pay for themselves), and you have a recipe for an empty stadium, even when the season has just started and the team could still prove itself to be a contender.

For reference, the Oakland Raiders play at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum (circled in red on the above map).  Though the facility’s dated nature and the city of Oakland being unable and/or unwilling to upgrade it have led to the team preparing to move to a new facility and location in Las Vegas, it is still convenient for fans to get to, which certainly can’t be said about all the new stadiums being built.

High ticket prices and poor play, in combination with all the reasons listed above on the quality of the product itself, can lead even the most die-hard fans to choose to watch from the convenience (and warmth) of their homes.  9 out of the NFL’s 32 teams have received a new stadium in the last 15 years, and a new stadium always brings about an increase in ticket prices.  The NFL’s decisions regarding stadium construction and ticket pricing could ultimately lead to a major decline in attendance of the more mediocre teams, especially those with brand new facilities that appear to omit ease of facility access in their design.

At the end of the day, the NFL is facing a number of headwinds that have led to a decline in ratings.  High prices of the game itself, both for the home consumer and the fans in stadium seats, are certainly what gets the ball rolling on fans choosing to tuning out.  Combine that with questions on the quality of the game, accessibility, and a litany of other factors not mentioned here (including the commissioner’s punishments of players and concussion fears), and it seems the political antics of some players is just one of many aspects that has led to the NFL’s sharp ratings drop.

However, when a Trump-voting US military veteran is sitting at home, pissed off about how his team is 0-2, angry that his cable bill is eating into his disability payments, upset that the game “isn’t what it used to be,” and he turns on the game just before kickoff to see a player doing this while the National Anthem is being sung…

…it just might be the straw that breaks this guy’s back and gets him to tune out of this week’s game.  Given the NFL’s current predicament regarding viewership, political antics from players are the last thing the league needs right now.