Millions of people still watch NFL games, and millions more don’t, and it’s the millions who did before but don’t anymore who have become a concern for the people responsible for the financial health of the $13 billion empire.

Entering the seventh week of the season, the Nielsen company reported that 11 percent fewer couches have been occupied by the potatoes who watch the pro game. It’s gotten so bad that the NFL in recent weeks has given rebates to some of its advertisers, in the form of free spots. Bloomberg Technology reported that nugget a couple of weeks ago. If that trend continues too far into the future, the kingdom cannot survive.

You probably know some or all of the reasons that knowledgeable football observers have given for the NFL’s ratings slump. How about we start with all those advertisements that are the mother’s milk of NFL riches? Paradoxically, they also ruin the flow of a game. The smarter of our species get around the ads by recording the game and going out for bike rides on lovely fall afternoons like Sunday’s in places like the Sacramento Valley. Then they come home and zap through an ad-filled, four-hour telecast in about 60 minutes. You can’t blame them for not wanting to sit around all day watching the NFL make money at their expense.

While the smartest minds in the nation dig deep into the American psyche for explanations on why 11 percent fewer of us are watching pro football, a couple of agencies in the business of gauging public opinion seem to agree that a huge reason for the NFL’s lost eyeballs is 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

A Rasmussen poll found 32 percent of the population is less likely to watch a game these days as a direct result of the Kaepernick-led, take-a-knee protests that have taken hold around the league. It’s the players’ way of protesting the shooting deaths of a number of African Americans by police officers in frantic incidents across the country the past couple of years.

A YouGov poll conducted on Yahoo Sports, meanwhile, found that the number one reason given by fans who are watching less of the NFL has been the pregame protests.

On Sunday, Kaepernick, along with 49ers safety Eric Reid and linebacker Eli Harold, knelt out the anthem. After leading the 49ers to touchdowns on two of their first four possessions, Kaepernick went on to complete fewer than half of his passes. He threw an interception. He fumbled the ball away on a sack. Most of the time, it seemed he could only accomplish his goal on those sad occasions when he tried to throw the ball out of bounds. He was sacked four times for 30 yards.

The Buccaneers, meanwhile, ran all over the 49ers, and passed on them fairly effectively, too. With 513 total yards, the visitors from western Florida blew out of NorCal with a 34-17 victory. The 49ers are now 1-6.

Kaepernick seized the time in his postgame news conference at Levi’s Stadium when he wore a Black Panther Party T-shirt underneath his gray suit coat. The Panthers used to follow the cops around and shot it out with them on occasion in West Oakland. They also conducted free breakfast programs for kids. It remains to be seen what effect, if any, the T-shirt will have on the NFL’s TV ratings.

On Sunday, Kaepernick was at a loss to explain how anything he might be doing is making fewer people watch his sport.

“I don’t know much about ratings and how they are affected and all of those things,” Kaepernick said. “But I don’t understand why ratings would go down, fighting for justice for people, to try to stop oppression, especially in a league that is predominantly black.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has denied the protests are related to his ratings problems.

Media types the past week offered a laundry list of explanations for the decline. Besides the commercial-defeating technology of recording the games, they cited the retirement of Peyton Manning, the four-game suspension of Tom Brady and an overall lack of star power. You’ve got to agree it may be a few years before the young guys throwing the ball such as Derek Carr and Carson Wentz can establish themselves as the new faces of the league.

The presidential campaign, of course, has figured into the basket of deplorable competitors the NFL has faced this year. The night of the first presidential debate, some 84 million watched Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump go at it compared with the barely 8 million who saw the Falcons beat the Saints. It was the worst “Monday Night Football” draw in the 2,500 years since the Babylonians invented Mondays.

You’ve also got the problems of the Cubs cutting into football in prime time, bad teams playing in big cities, and the theory that millennials are put off by the NFL’s crackdown on touchdown celebrations.

It always comes back to the millennials.

One of them wears Black Panther Party T-shirts and plays quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He is finding out that it’s not easy to be a spokesman for a movement. You wonder if his TV ratings might improve if he improved his quarterback ratings.

(c)2016 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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