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Sunday swoon? Where people miss the point on NFL ratings

From ESPN - February 11, 2018

If one was looking to dispel the rumors of the NFL's demise, a good place to start would have been downtown Minneapolis the day before the Super Bowl, where thousands of fans slogged through a confetti-like churn of snow so they could take selfies next to football-themed ice sculptures and gawk at large humans who might or might not have been football players ("That Von Miller?" one man asked, loudly, about two different people, neither of whom was Miller). While an unscientific survey of the knit caps floating through the crowd found that most belonged to Vikings, Eagles and Patriots supporters, many of the event's visitors had come simply because they were fans of the NFL -- not a team or a city, but the product itself. The NFL is a proper noun, but it's also a common one, as universal a hobby in America as jogging or reading (and let's face it: it's probably more popular than reading). The league's most dominant trait is its own dominance.

Until recently, that is. After falling 8 percent in 2016, the NFL's ratings plunged another 9.7 percent during the regular season in 2017, then continued dropping in the playoffs, taking double-digit nosedives until the championship round. On Sunday, the football gods gifted the NFL with a perfect Super Bowl, a nail-biter between two teams from major markets, yet ratings still fell 7 percent to 103.4 million (5 percent if you count official streaming services). It's worth noting that the gap between the NFL and every other network show actually widened this year, which is why Fox Sports just paid $3.3 billion for five years of "Thursday Night Football," a sizable premium over the previous deal. But because the league has, until recently, been immune to the ratings curse afflicting the rest of media, its newfound struggles have invited endless handwringing.

Every fan I met at the Super Bowl was aware of the NFL's ratings decline. "I have heard a couple of different theories," said Kurt, a 32-year-old pharmacist who lives in Minneapolis. Kurt and his friend, Taylor, were standing next to a line of people waiting to jump into a bin of foam pellets, making diving catches in front of a camera. Both men were carrying bottles of Budweiser and paper Super Bowl 52 helmets. "My father-in-law believes a lot of it has to do with the kneeling for the national anthem," he said.

Taylor, 29, said he thinks people are busier now than they were when he was growing up. "There's so much stuff going on -- so many things that you can watch on a Sunday."

Kurt, who was wearing an Aaron Rodgers jersey, added that, while he still paid attention to his hometown Packers, his attention slipped a bit after the star quarterback broke his collarbone in Week 6. "If I could watch, great, but if not, I was not drawn to the game," he said.

I asked them if they still consider themselves football fans, and they nodded briskly. "Love the NFL," Taylor said.

"Love the NFL," Kurt said.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the NFL's ratings problem is that so many people care about it. Television ratings have been free-falling for a while (more on that later), and the NFL's popularity has waned before, but this current downturn has received outsized attention. Some of the interest stems from broader questions about the viability of the sport and fans' investment in the quality of play (a drop-off in ratings for, say, "The Voice," probably would not spur heated debate about the singers' talent). But most of the fascination can be tied to two names: Colin Kaepernick and Donald Trump.

The NFL's ratings began their current descent in 2016, around the time that Kaepernick -- then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers -- first knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequity in policing. When ratings continued to tumble in 2017 as other players joined his protest, some saw the correlation and declared causation, an argument that was calcified when Trump began attacking the league (in late September, the president tweeted that NFL ratings were "way down," adding, baselessly, that people were tuning in only at the beginning of games to see if "our country will be disrespected"). As the season progressed and coverage of the protests dwindled, Trump's focus moved elsewhere, but he still tweaked the players, releasing a statement before the Super Bowl that stressed the importance of standing for the anthem. Other politicians have followed suit. Republican candidates in states such as South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee have publicly hammered the NFL, indicating that they believe the stance resonates with their base.

It's undeniable that the protests, which were never intended to antagonize the military, have become a wedge issue, exposing racial and political fault lines that have long divided Americans with a shared affinity for the NFL. But it's far less clear that they have actually driven huge numbers of people away from the sport. Most of the evidence tying the decline in the league's popularity to politics is anecdotal: stories about relatives and friends boycotting the games, post-apocalyptic-looking pictures of half-full stadiums (if you remove home games for the new-to-L.A. Rams and Chargers from the picture, direct ticket purchases this season were basically flat) and polls indicating that people were upset about the protests and less interested in the NFL this year.

According to a Gallup Poll survey, the percent of Americans who call the NFL their favorite sport to watch peaked at 43 percent in 2007, two years before the sport's concussion problem bloomed into a full-blown crisis, four years before Colin Kaepernick was drafted and seven years before the league's bungling of several domestic violence cases became a national news story.

"The trouble with self-reported surveys is people will say whatever they want," said Anthony Crupi, an AdAge reporter who covers the television industry.

Trying to figure out what's ailing the NFL is a little like using the internet to self-diagnose a throbbing headache: You can find dozens of reasons that will induce varying degrees of panic (BRAIN TUMOR?), all supported by varying degrees of evidence. For example: You could point out that the same Gallup Poll that shows the percentage of people who call football their favorite sport has declined (it's at 37 percent now, still much higher than for any other sport) also reveals that the contingent with no favorite sport at all has risen seven points since the beginning of the decade. You could argue that the NFL's product was subpar this season, citing the time spent debating the catch rule (10,000 hours feels about right) or, as Crupi highlighted, the numbing 12.9-point differential in "Sunday Night Football." You could look at the Nielsen data behind the ratings decline, and you'd find that, while viewership among older white men and women fell at an 8 percent clip, the decline among young black men and women was far more dramatic, dropping, respectively, 16 and 20 percent. White fans made up the majority of lost viewers because white fans make up the majority of people who watch the NFL, but the share of non-white fans walking away from the sport more than tripled this year.

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