With the season officially over, UBS Securities conducted a survey of 2,000 consumers to determine the cause of declining ratings for NFL football and came up with a conclusion that is sure to cause some heated debate: player protests of the National Anthem.
About 50% of respondents to a UBS online survey conducted in November said they don’t watch football because of the protests, up from a little more than 30% in 2016. According to UBS, 29% of those surveyed said they didn’t watch games because they weren’t as interested in the sport (compared with about 35% in 2016), while about 23% said they avoided games because they were not comfortable with players’ off-field behavior.
Weekly NFL ratings grew just three times in the 17 weeks of the season, with the worst trends in the final six weeks of the year, according to UBS. The playoffs were even worse, with wildcard game ratings down more than 20% and division championships off by about 16%.
Players began taking a knee during NFL games after former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick first did it in August 2016 during the pre-season to protest the treatment of African-American citizens by police. His first protests went unnoticed until the third pre-season game, and first only a few of his teammates joined him. Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March 2017 and hasn’t signed with another team.
But other players took up the mantle and the protests continued, reaching a peak during the third week of the 2017 season, when players from nearly every team kneeled for the Anthem after President Trump tweeted that players that do not stand for the Anthem should be fired. But since then the fervor has died down considerably, despite continued outrage from President Trump and his supporters. In last Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, no player from either team was shown to take a knee during the Anthem.
UBS also analyzed Nielsen data, and found that rural areas – where President Trump had his greatest margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election – had the greatest NFL ratings declines. And the smaller the area, the larger the deficit – NFL ratings in counties that included the largest metropolitan areas shrunk about 7.8% according to UBS, while ratings in those counties outside of major markets declined between 9.7% and 15.7%.
UBS noted that the underperformance of rural areas in NFL ratings didn’t start until the third week of the season, just when President Trump began speaking out against the protests.
“It is unclear what the long term impact of the Anthem protests will be on NFL viewership,” UBS said in the study. “It could be argued that this is a temporary headwind for the NFL, however the protests have already impacted two consecutive seasons. Additionally there is no guarantee that viewers who stop watching NFL games because of the protests would return if protests were to stop.”