NFL Ratings are Down, But They Won’t Learn the Right Lesson From It

It’s official, the NFL is slipping a bit. What looked like an anomaly early in the season has become a full-blown trend of NFL ratings being down by about 10%. The NFL has a handful of pre-loaded excuses for the 2016 dip in TV viewership with the presidential debates competing with 2 primetime games and a more-interesting-than-usual World Series in the mix as well. But the drop in ratings extends well beyond those isolated cases; viewership is down across the board. A 10% drop might not sound like a big deal, but if the trend continues the NFL could stand to lose upwards of $700 million dollars by commanding a smaller TV audience.

The potential loss of revenue has got NFL execs scratching their heads and asking questions. Pundits have weighed in on possible reasons for the decline in popularity, with the potential ratings killing factors ranging from cracking down on end zone celebrations to legal troubles for daily fantasy outfits. Certainly, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to be less excited the NFL over the last few years, which include but are not limited to: the continued use of a racial slur as a team name, concussions, and dubious handling of assault and sexual misconduct charges against players while the league zealously pursues a case about deflated footballs. Each individual fan that’s watching less football has their own reasoning, but thanks to a new survey we have some data on what factors are most important to that group as a whole. And the results are… troublesome.

The survey was conducted by Seton Hall who interviewed 841 adults asking a variety of questions about their NFL watching experience. We’ll start by looking at the second ranked reason fans are watching less football. For 50% of respondents the presidential campaign was a distraction from their regular football watching routine. For the NFL, this factor doesn’t represent a long-term problem as much as a short-term annoyance.

The third ranked reason (47% of respondents) for less football watching was the NFL’s poor handling of domestic violence cases involving players. It’s encouraging to see that the NFL audience is not just brushing this issue under the rug. There’s an opportunity here to send a message to the league that domestic violence needs to be taken seriously or it’s going to hit them in their pocketbook. More encouraging is that both female and male fans said this was an issue. Asking the NFL to hold its employees to a standard of human decency is really the minimum we should expect of them (or any company, really). But star players continue to find their way back on the field after committing violent acts. And fans are starting to get fed up with it, which is good. The problem is that the top response from the Seton Hall survey is likely to overshadow the other responses. In the survey, 56% of respondents cited players not standing for the national anthem as a reason they were watching less football.

Now let’s be clear, fans have just as much right to not watch football as Colin Kaepernick and others have a right to stand, sit, kneel, or hold their hands in the air to protest racial injustice. And while it may be a little misguided to feel that Kaepernick is disrespecting the troops or the country with his actions, it’s also understandable that Americans with a strong connection to the national anthem and what it might represent to them don’t want to see it used as a part of protests. The news that Kaepernick did not vote certainly didn’t make life easier for his defenders, but his free speech is still valid. Unlike many of his fellow players, Kaepernick has not committed any violent or sex crimes, in fact, he hasn’t committed any crimes at all. Yet he is still receiving the ire of more fans and the situation threatens to overshadow issues that should really be at the forefront of fixing NFL culture.

Both Kaepernick and the fans opposed to his actions have a statement they are trying to make. But therein lies the problem. When people tune out because African American players are trying to start a conversation about race, those people are opting out of having the conversation. In fact, they’re opting out of even being reminded about the conversation. And what makes this even more frustrating is that there are some really good reasons to not watch the NFL and let them make money off of us, but that’s likely to get lost in the discussion about national anthem etiquette. And the national anthem etiquette discussion was already obstructing the real purpose of these black players’ actions: to bring attention to race issues in America. As fans turn away from their screens we’re only talking about how Kaepernick is hurting football, not how segments of our country are hurting. And we may also be giving the NFL a temporary cop-out for dealing with its more serious problems. With Kaepernick now being connected to their ratings drop, the NFL is going to have a harder time allowing Kaepernick and others to continue to use their platform to advocate for social change.

There’s no easy fix to the NFL’s problems just like there’s no easy fix to America’s race issues. But considering how ham-handed the NFL has been in tackling many of it’s previous scandals, the emerging “crisis” of lower ratings seems ripe for another misstep. The survey results citing Kaepernick and others as a ratings liability paint a picture of how that might happen. If the NFL starts coming down on Kaepernick and other black players for expressing themselves they will be missing the mark. And as fans, if we allow that to become the narrative a chance will be missed to send the NFL a message that we do care about real issues that affect the league like domestic abuse and other serious infractions, concussions, and use of racist mascots.

A message is being sent right now, and it’s in the only language the NFL seems to speak: money. But how that message is interpreted remains to be seen.

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