Never in the history of the NFL have its ratings been so scrutinized. There’s an almost breathless feel to the way fans, team owners, advertisers and, of course, President Donald Trump now await the release of the figures.
That they were essentially mixed in the season’s third week is irrelevant. The obsession with the numbers, amped up by Trump’s condemnation of protests during the National Anthem, is a big headache for the National Football League and its hyper-protective commissioner, Roger Goodell.
For years, it was able to exert strong control over its own narrative. The league and its powerful media partners continuously burnished the brand as a mass-market symbol of American vitality, strength and exceptionalism.
The current commotion has, in totality, the opposite effect, reducing the NFL to the role of a sick patient looking for a proper diagnosis, a scofflaw institution deserving public shaming by the commander in chief. The reversal — from heroic savior of Sundays to something in need of saving — is proving difficult to shake off.
“The best thing for the NFL would be to divorce itself from politics and focus on making the game safer, more entertaining and appealing to everybody. But the environment they are in is so polarizing,” says Allen Adamson, head of BrandSimple Consulting. An NFL spokesperson declined to comment.
The ratings decline, which started during the 2016 season, isn’t an immediate problem for the league thanks to its long-term contracts with broadcasters.
The one with ESPN runs through 2021 and Fox, CBS and NBC are locked in through 2022. Any loss of audience between now and then is only a problem for the networks — though it all could eventually catch up to the NFL, the country’s most profitable sports league.
In the meantime, seemingly everywhere you look on social media, some armchair ratings sleuth is dissecting the statistics and offering up a hypothesis about what’s gone awry with professional football. Obviously, it’s the pathetic quarterback play. Or, clearly, concern about players’ long-term health. Or the horrible refs, or the recent hurricanes, or the cannibalism of the live-game experience thanks to social-media highlights and the launch of the NFL RedZone. Or, somehow, millennials.
But the theory gaining the most attention right now is the silent protests during the anthem. It’s an argument Trump has been pounding. During a campaign-style rally on Sept. 22, he declared the ratings were “down massively, massively,” and pinned the blame, in part, on players protesting police brutality by taking the knee, as it’s called.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,’” the president said. “Out! He’s fired.” He also suggested that rules designed to improve player safety were chasing away viewers. “They’re ruining the game!”
Those comments touched off a weekend of heightened drama, featuring widespread sideline protests by players, coaches and owners, nationwide Twitter feuds and numerous statements by owners defending free speech. By the time Monday morning rolled around, the news media awaited Nielsen’s reports with a giddiness usually reserved for Apple product launches and federal job reports.
In the end, the ratings were a mixed bag. Over the weekend, CBS saw a boost versus 2016 and NBC and Fox experienced declines; ESPN’s ratings for the Dallas Cowboys’ victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night rose 63 percent, helping lift league-wide viewership out of an early-season slump.
None of which did anything to staunch overheated reactions. “Fans are disgusted with the NFL, not only for politicizing the game they love but that league policies reveal a left-wing anti-American streak,” Breitbart reported in a story under the headline, “NFL Backlash: Sunday Night Football Hit With Season-Low Ratings.”
Trump renewed his barbs Thursday, telling the “Fox & Friends” show that “the NFL cannot disrespect our country.” The president said he’s spoken to NFL owners, who are trapped “in a box.”
“I think they’re afraid of their players if you want to know the truth,” he said.
The league and its 32 teams made $1.25 billion from corporate partners and advertisers last year, according to ESP Properties. For decades, big companies paid vast amounts of money to bask in the associative glow of the NFL’s perceived dynamism, passion and vigor. Now they’re paying vast amounts of money to bask in the fiery hell-broth of the culture wars.
Over the weekend, fans who agree with Trump shared lists of advertisers on social media networks while calling for boycotts along with hashtags like #PunchThemInTheWallet.
Richard Levick, a crisis communications expert, says the NFL deftly navigated the weekend’s challenges but expects no shortage of hazards ahead. “They showed a high level of unity and independence, respecting those who participated in the protests and those who didn’t,” says Levick. “In this era of hyper politicization — which is being driven by the White House into everything from the Boy Scouts to the NFL — there is no safe middle of the road.”
Over the years, Trump has tweeted about ratings hundreds of times, often in the context of bashing one of his perceived antagonists. including CNN, Morning Joe, the Emmys, Megyn Kelly, Barack Obama, Bill Maher and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The NFL could be forgiven for wishing the president would shift his critique elsewhere. Kelly does have a new show.
But for the time being, Trump is keeping his eye on the NFL. On Tuesday morning, he was back on Twitter. “Ratings for NFL football are way down,” he wrote, “except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!”
He returned to theme on Wednesday as he left the White House to deliver a speech on tax reform, telling reporters the NFL is in trouble. “Their business is going to hell.”
Week four starts tonight. The Chicago Bears play the Green Bay Packers. Ratings are due out Friday. Tweets to follow.