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Will National Anthem Protests Affect Viewership for Super Bowl 52?

By Taylor Smith
Published on January 29, 2018
Patriots Kneeling NFL

There were a number of fun storylines in the NFL this season. We had Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles rising up and finishing tied with the best record in the league. We had the Los Angeles Rams, fresh off a miserable first season back in SoCal, suddenly emerge as arguably the league’s most potent offense. And, of course, we had the continued greatness of Tom Brady leading the New England Patriots to an 8th Super Bowl appearance since 2001.

Of course, the NFL also drew headlines for other reasons this past year. At a campaign-style rally in Alabama back in September, President Donald Trump blasted players (like former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick) that opted to take a knee during the pregame national anthem in order to protest racial inequality in the United States.

At the rally, Trump said,

“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. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ You know, some owners are going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it, but they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

There were only a handful of players around the league kneeling during the anthem in the weeks prior to Trump’s comments, but his fiery rhetoric caused a massive uptick in the number in the weeks afterward. In the weeks following his comments, dozens of players around the league opted to kneel prior to the anthem.

Did It Affect Ratings?

2017 marked the second consecutive season in which the NFL saw a fairly sharp decline in television ratings. According to Sports Business Daily, Monday Night Football, which airs on ESPN, finished with its lowest season-long NFL ratings ever. NBC, which airs Sunday Night Football every week, saw an average of 18.2 million viewers during its games, which was the network’s lowest mark since 2008. Thursday Night Football, which shuffled between CBS, NBC and the NFL Network, averaging 10.9 million viewers. That was the lowest since the current format was adopted 3 seasons ago.

Per Anthony Crupi of Ad Age, the league’s 2017 TV ratings were about 9 percent lower on the whole than they were in 2016. The overall decline has been incredibly sharp since 2015. Crupi reported that in 2015, there were 13 regular season games that averaged a household rating of 15.0 or higher. In 2016, that number fell all the way to 3. This season, there was just one such game. That is a staggering fall.

While the ratings have been falling, we should add some context.

The NFL is used to blowing its competition out of the water. While it’s not exactly doing that these days, it’s still typically winning. Sunday Night Football was the highest-rated primetime television event this past year for the 10th straight year. While the numbers may not be as dominant as they once were, more people are still watching football than other primetime shows.

Crupi additionally pointed out that, of the 50 most-watched TV broadcasts in America this past year, 37 were NFL games. In 2016, just 28 of the 50 most-watched programs were NFL games. So, in that area, the league actually saw a surge.

What Do These Numbers Mean?

The NFL seeing an overall dip in ratings cannot solely be attributed to one factor. In all likelihood, there are quite a few reasons for the league’s recent loss of some popularity. Did some people tune out of football because President Trump told them to do so? There is no question, but blaming the NFL’s declining TV numbers on anthem protests is just lazy.

Most NFL games take place on one of the 4 major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX). Those stations have seen a pretty hefty drop in primetime ratings for programs that aren’t NFL-related. Primetime television shows on those from where they were the year prior, which is a sizable decrease.

It’s also fair to say that the NFL’s marquee franchises include the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and both New York squads. Of that group, only New England and Pittsburgh even came close to making the playoffs. Instead, the postseason was littered with teams like the Jaguars, Bills, Titans, Vikings, Falcons and Rams. As a result, most of the teams that drive boffo television ratings were playing meaningless games for most of the season. That certainly helped curb interest from your casual NFL fan.

We shouldn’t ignore the negative impact the expansion on the primetime NFL schedule has had, either. With the fairly recent advent of the Thursday night game, the league now has a rule that states that each of the league’s 32 teams must play in at least one primetime game during the regular season. While the league is doing a solid to some of its lesser franchises, who wants to watch the Browns take on the Bengals on a Thursday night? Very few people outside the state of Ohio, to be sure.

What About the Super Bowl?

Obviously, the dive in television ratings has to have those in the league office somewhat concerned. Football is still the most popular TV sport in the U.S. by a wide margin, but it’s been steadily losing ground to basketball and baseball over the last couple of years. Will the trend continue going into Super Bowl 52?

The Super Bowl is the biggest TV event in the country every year, and that’s not going to change in 2018.

Last year, the first year in which we saw some TV ratings fall, Super Bowl 51 was still the most-watched program by a huge margin, and it currently ranks as the fourth-most-watched TV program in the history of the U.S. Last year’s matchup between the Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons drew over 111 million sets of eyeballs.

That game went down before Trump whipped up a firestorm this past September, but to think that ratings for this year’s contest between the Pats and the Philadelphia Eagles will crater as a result of protests is short-sighted. Some folks will still decide against watching the game – even though no player on either team has knelt for the anthem in a long time – as a matter of “principle.”

Look at last year’s viewership. Super Bowl 51 drew the aforementioned 111.3 million viewers. The second-most-watched TV broadcast was a playoff game between the Cowboys and Packers, arguably the league’s 2 top franchises in terms of popularity. Viewership for that game was massive (48.5 million), but it paled in comparison to the big game.

Millions of Americans agree with Trump’s comments regarding the NFL, while millions of others disagree. Still, it’s tough to imagine enough being willing to boycott the Super Bowl as a result of the politics involved.

Reconnect Research conducted a variety of polls regarding . The company reported that 44 percent of Americans polled said that they watched Super Bowl 51, and 43 percent of those people said they intend to watch Super Bowl 52.

Reconnect also found that 63 percent of people polled said that they watched less football this year than in years past, but very few of those cited Trump or the protests as the reason for doing so. Things like concussions and the massive amount of other TV viewing options available nowadays surely played a big role.

Considering Super Bowl 52 is set to go down between a couple of high-profile teams from major media markets, one would imagine the game may actually see a slight increase over last year’s New England-Atlanta tilt. The protests, which have long since fallen out of the news cycle, will have little if any, effect on television viewership on NBC.

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Probability that National Anthem Protests will Affect Super Bowl Viewing
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Probability that National Anthem Protests will Affect Super Bowl Viewing
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2017 marked the second consecutive season in which the NFL saw a fairly sharp decline in television ratings. Here we are breaking down how this season’s national anthem protests may affect viewership and betting interest for Super Bowl 52.
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