The professional sporting landscape in the U.S. has changed substantially in the past three years. The five major sports leagues in the U.S., the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Soccer (MLS), all had different narratives ratings-wise in the past couple seasons, but one myth among sports fans remains common: politics are ruining sports.
This statement is simply wrong. The NFL is the league that gets the highest viewership on TV each and every year. In 2017, the top three most viewed TV broadcasts were Super Bowl 51, an NFC Divisional Playoff game and the AFC Championship. With that being said, 13 of the top 20 broadcasts in 2017 were by the NFL. Despite its rating slump, the NFL is still considered a television giant.
But while the glass is half full, it’s still half empty. In 2014, about 205 million viewers watched part or all of a NFL game. Then, in 2016, an internal memo addressed the NFL’s concerns with ratings down 11 percent through week four. The problem that most fans cited was the player protests that were happening at the time, headlined by San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. If you believe that player protests caused a decline in ratings the past couple seasons, you are wrong.
I understand the misconception that player protests hurt the NFL. Some people would argue that liberal-minded people stopped watching due to Colin Kaepernick’s inability to find himself on an NFL team, and some would argue that conservative-minded people stopped watching due to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell letting players kneel during the national anthem. I believe that while that was something that happened, the amount of people that stopped watching the NFL because of that occurence is small and not the reason the NFL’s numbers are down.
The memo in 2016 addressed the protests, stating “it is worth noting that we see no evidence that concern over player protests during the National Anthem is having any material impact on our ratings.” On top of that, a study showed that perception of the NFL and its players actually went up in 2016.
So what is causing the decline?
The pace of play, not letting players celebrate touchdowns (a rule that has recently been changed),changes to rules on tackles and what is and isn’t allowed for the players, new rules for protecting the quarterback, the suspension of great players, off-the-field violence, concussions and “deflategate” are only a couple reasons outside of politics NFL viewership has declined.
Here are the top replies to the 2016 tweet of the memo the NFL sent out:
“Shorter, more accurate memo: Pace of play too slow, people can’t celebrate, and nobody is allowed to hit anyone else.”
“They have to review every single thing!! It’s getting annoying.”
“Maybe cause people want to watch their stars play and not be suspended for BS.”
The NFL has found itself in a bit of a predicament with its falling ratings. In the U.S., the NBA is the only sport out of the major five that is seeing an increase in ratings, more than likely because of its quicker pace, safer gameplay, and ability to excite fans with player brand and gameplay. Imagine a NBA where nearly every personal foul is a suspension or ejection, players are benched for multiple weeks due to head injuries and no celebration was allowed after hitting a game-winning three.
Roger Goodell sees the problem and is making the NFL do what it can to fix it, with the rule changes to celebrations and testing of new helmets to better protect players. However, there is still not much effort being put into lowering off-the-field violence, the number of suspensions/fines and rules that actually make sense with regards to hitting a quarterback, and until then, it’ll be those things dropping the ratings, not politics.
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