NFL Ratings Become Entangled in Political Battle With Trump

President Donald Trump has turned watching football on Sunday, one of America’s most popular activities, into an act of political protest at a time when NFL ratings are already under pressure.

Trump’s call for fans to boycott the National Football League leaves viewers in a quandary over whether to heed a president who calls some players’ patriotism into question, or support the teams that have tied families together through decades and instilled local pride.

TV networks are already worried about declining viewership of the NFL, which has endured a rash of public relations disasters in recent years. When the latest ratings emerge Monday, the president will be able to use the slightest drop in viewership as proof that fans are fed up with the NFL and its players’ activism. Networks, on the other hand, may use any increase as evidence that politics are bringing added attention to a sport that Standard Media Index says generated a record $3.5 billion in advertising revenue last year.

Members of the New England Patriots kneel during the National Anthem on Sept. 24.

Photographer: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

“There will be a lot of attention paid to ratings, and it will be fascinating to see if more people tune into the beginning of games just to see what happens,” said Brian Wieser, an analyst with Pivotal Research Group. With so many forces at play, including viewers’ changing entertainment tastes, “it will be impossible to connect cause and effect.”

NFL ratings were down in nine of 13 time periods through the pro season’s first two weeks, according to Sports Media Watch — a troubling development for the nation’s most-watched networks. The NFL grabs viewers from all ages, demographics, genders, political reliefs and backgrounds, and then feeds them into to other shows like “Bull” and “The Voice.” The Super Bowl is the most-watched TV event every year.

Ratings Slip

One risk from declining viewership is that, if ratings fall short of the projections made when advertisements were sold, the networks may have to compensate by running ads at other times to deliver their promised reach.

Networks blamed the poor ratings in Week One in part on Hurricane Irma, which slammed Florida. They blamed a multitude of factors for the low viewership last year, including the presidential election and poor match-ups. The NFL last year noted that it’s not that there are fewer viewers of games — it’s just that they’re not staying tuned in as long, Wieser said.

Political conservatives cited another factor: player protests.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during performances of the national anthem in August 2016 to protest police brutality and mistreatment of black Americans. His action divided those who supported his right to free speech and those offended by his behavior. No NFL team has signed Kaepernick this season, despite the need for a quarterback at several teams, and he has become a cause celebre for many political activists.

San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick, right, and Eric Reid kneel on the sideline in Sept. 2016.

Photographer: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers via Getty Images

Never one to shy from controversy, Trump, at a rally in Alabama last week, criticized players for kneeling during the anthem and urged owners to fire the “son of a bitch” players who protested. He later clashed with professional basketball’s Golden State Warriors, tweeting to withdraw his invitation to the White House to celebrate their 2017 championship. Some National Basketball Association players have said that they didn’t plan to go anyway.

Owners Respond

The NFL owners didn’t heed the president. Owners, broadcasters and league officials criticized Trump over the weekend, and more players than ever kneeled during renditions of the anthem that were broadcast live Sunday on CBS and Fox. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of several owners who donated to Trump’s campaign, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the president’s comments.

Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan stands with players during the National Anthem in London on Sept. 16.

Photographer: Logan Bowles via AP Photo

“The tweets put the owners and league into a really precarious position,” said Dan Durbin, head of the Annenberg Institute for Sports, Media & Society at the University of Southern California. “There is some part of their fan base that does buy into Trump. If they say something too strong against what Trump says, you lose those core fans. Whereas if you don’t respond to Trump, everybody else is really going to start falling away with disinterest. They are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.”

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