It’s an election year, silly.
That wasn’t the entire company line, but the impact of the dramatic presidential election cycle was certainly a prevailing sentiment as NFL owners gathered Tuesday for their quarterly meeting and assessed the league’s unusual and precipitous dip in TV ratings.
Assuming the results aren’t, well, rigged, NFL games–the undisputed king of U.S. sports viewing–were down 11% for the first six weeks of the season when compared to a similar point last year.
“Obviously, the debates have had a big impact,” Houston Texans owner Robert McNair told USA TODAY Sports.
But the debates represent just the biggest of several suspected factors. Tom Brady served four games in Deflategate jail. Peyton Manning retired. The younger generation is increasingly watching games or clips streamed to mobile devices. Too many penalties. Unappealing prime-time matchups. Too many prime-time matchups.
Then there are the protests. The national anthem protests by players, ignited by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s mission to raise awareness about police brutality and social justice inequalities that victimize African Americans, has been a polarizing debate of its own on the NFL’s grand stage. Though the protests–from players like Kaepernick taking a knee, to players raising a fist, to players and coaches locking arms in unity–end when the games begin, they generate much discussion before and after the contests.
“I think it’s the wrong venue,” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay told USA TODAY Sports. “It hasn’t been a positive thing. What we all have to be aware of as players, owners, PR people, equipment managers, is when the lights go on we are entertainment. We are being paid to put on a show. There are other places to express yourself.”
Irsay’s view is undoubtedly shared by other owners who frown on the protests drawing attention from their product. Given the intense backlash against Kaepernick, it’s plausible that people have turned away to protest the protests.
“People come to the game because they want to get away from what’s happening in their everyday lives,” McNair said. “When you bring those types of things into the scene, yeah, it will turn some people off. But the main thing we try to do is to say, ‘We recognize your concern. Let’s do something about it.’ ”
It’s striking that the anthem protests, connected to other factors, are viewed as a variable that seemingly runs deeper than other recent crises. The NFL took tremendous PR hits with its domestic violence issues and concerns about the effects of concussions. But those serious issues seemingly didn’t have a major effect on the ratings.
What if the lost viewers from this season never come back?
“That should be the NFL’s biggest fear,” consultant Marc Ganis of Sportscorp, Ltd., told USA TODAY Sports, adding that it took years for Major League Baseball to recover after a labor impasse wiped out the playoffs and the World Series in 1994.