The reasons for the NFL’s ratings decline have been hotly disputed, but a newly released survey suggests that the take-a-knee protests were primarily to blame.
A UBS Securities analysis released Tuesday showed that 50 percent of U.S. consumers who watched less football in 2017 cited their disapproval of players refusing to stand during the national anthem, the most popular response and up from 32 percent last year.
The second most checked explanation was “not as interested in professional football,” which registered 29 percent, followed by off-field player behavior, which was cited by 23 percent.
“The National Anthem protest was not only the most frequently cited reason, it also had the largest annual increase of any explanation cited for watching less NFL,” said the UBS Evidence Lab in its note to investors.
The survey comes with the NFL caught up in the debate over whether the protests are driving the ratings decline, a point of contention that resurfaced after this year’s Super Bowl ratings fell 7.1 percent to their lowest level since 2009.
The Sunday game drew 103.4 million viewers on television, down from 111.3 million who tuned in the previous year, for an audience number that was still good enough for the 10th most popular television broadcast in U.S. history.
The Super Bowl drop-off followed a 10 percent ratings decline in the regular season and 16 percent drop in the playoffs, according to UBS.
The survey was conducted in November with 2,000 consumers age 13 and over, using a sample representative of the population on gender, age, geography, household size and household income.
About 800 said they watch football, and of those, 17.5 percent said they watched less NFL in 2017 than they had in the past. Respondents were allowed to check more than one reason for their lack of interest.
Will the trend continue? “It could be argued that this is a temporary headwind for the NFL, however the protests have already impacted two consecutive seasons,” said the UBS analysis. “Additionally there is no guarantee that viewers who stop watching NFL games because of the protests would return if protests were to stop.”
Blaming protests called ‘intellectually dishonest’
The NFL Players Association has challenged the assertion that the protests are driving the ratings slide, pointing to factors such as cord-cutting, or fans watching the games on media platforms other than television.
Other factors cited for NFL’s decline include heightened concern over player concussions, uncompelling games, poor officiating and even bad weather.
At last week’s pre-Super Bowl press conference, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith called the protest explanation “intellectually dishonest.”
“There isn’t a television show, a news show that isn’t experiencing a double-digit decline,” he said.
Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson added, “When I hear that, my initial response is, why are you saying that? And usually the person that’s saying that or the institute that’s saying that does not agree with what the players are doing.”
“So it’s a very willfully ignorant thing to say, that it’s inextricably tied to a player kneeling, and it’s a very easy cop-out to say, well, look at the NFL, they’re ruining their game,” said Mr. Watson, a member of the NFLPA executive committee.
#ICYMI: The #NFLPA Executive Committee gives their understanding of the current NFL game day tv ratings. 📺: https://t.co/O3G309p3Pa
— NFLPA (@NFLPA) February 2, 2018
ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith wasn’t convinced. “The biggest issue of all to me is the Colin Kaepernick situation,” he said Tuesday on “First Take.”
He referred to the fan backlash over players refusing to stand for the national anthem, which began in the 2016 season with the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and peaked in September after being criticized by President Trump.
“Regardless of what his [Kaepernick’s] purpose was, and his purpose was entirely different than what the president tried to formulate it as, the way he hijacked the issue and turned it into something that it was not about, the reality is in the eyes of a lot of Americans, that’s exactly what it is,” said Mr. Smith.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found that 49 percent of respondents said they followed the NFL closely, down from 58 percent in 2014, and that white men accounted for the largest drop.
“So, in a sense, the NFL’s viewership/popularity problems seem to boil down to a problem with white men,” said the NBC News analysis, prompting conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh to counter that the problem lies with the NFL.
The conservative watchdog group 2ndVote also pinned the blame on the protests, saying “fans have sent the National Football League a clear message—they want football, not politics.”
Echoing that sentiment was Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, who said last month he thought the protest “turned a lot of fans off.”
“I think with everything that we have going on in our country, the whole kneeling process was not something that America looked upon favorably, and it showed in the television ratings,” Mr. Singletary told CNBC. “Hopefully that’s behind us and we can continue to move forward.”
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