NFL Ratings Are Down & Big Media’s Too Scared To Cite The Boycott

With season-opening kickoff and Monday Night Football behind us, what promises to be one of the most politically tinged seasons in the NFL is underway. Still mired in controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick, the league is also defending itself against those who believe the organization is too lenient with players who’ve committed violent crimes and others who disapprove of its handling of players’ physical and mental health. A movement to boycott the NFL altogether gained considerable steam in the wake of Kaepernick’s perceived mistreatment by the league, and many say the athlete has been blackballed for his decision to protest the national anthem and speak out against racism and other forms of injustice.


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Now that the new season has officially begun, NFL’s opening night ratings are in and they’ve taken a considerable fumble. As reported by CNN, Thursday’s kickoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots drew 21.8 million viewers, compared to last season’s opener, which garnered 25.2 million. In 2015, 27.3 million tuned in to the season’s kickoff game. Clearly, there’s been a downward trend in viewership, but it’s certainly become even more pronounced since 2016. However, as the CNN headline (“NFL kickoff ratings take a hit, but is Hurricane Irma to blame?”) and those of many other media outlets suggest, a correlation between lower ratings and the boycott is being hedged. Rather, many news outlets suggests it’s due to Hurricane Irma. In fact, the CNN report skirted any of the league’s controversy whatsoever in commenting on sagging ratings, saying instead “some argued that the contentious 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton acted as a viewership vacuum while others placed the blame on a mixture of factors from a lack of star power to bad match ups.” Outlets like SBNation and Deadline took similar approaches.

The New York Post was less vague, stating in its headline “NFL’s opening night was a TV ratings disaster.” The report takes more of a direct aim at the league’s multiple imbroglios, saying “[s]ome have linked the lower ratings to twin controversies — concussion- caused CTE and the national anthem protest sparked by Colin Kaepernick.” Rather than acknowledging the protests due to Kaepernick’s not being picked up by a team, the Post’s mention of “national anthem protest” refers to a theory that began circulating in 2016 that players’ protests during the anthem were a turn off for viewers. The Post also places just as much conjectured blame onto the weather, adding “[s]ome are blaming TV coverage of Hurricane Irma for some of the NFL slippage.”

In striking contrast to the conjecture about Irma’s impact on NFL ratings, WTA Tennis reports ESPN’s coverage of the Women’s U.S. Open final was the highest rated in the network’s history, and was up 36%. That increase was achieved despite the fact that “tennis strongholds Miami and Ft. Myers are not included in the figures,” due to Irma. The success of the tennis matches, despite a storm affecting areas that typically yield strong viewership, seems to cast some doubt that Irma is the determinative factor in football’s continuing downward popularity spiral.

Mincing fewer words is sports writer Alex Reimer, who on September 11 published a piece for sports-radio network WEEI titled “Maybe NFL ratings are down because the product is bad.” In it, he mentions all of the aforementioned hypothesis–anthem protests, bad weather, elections, the concussion crisis–and he is one of the few to even cite boycotts due to Kaepernick not playing as a possibility. However, Reimer’s position is the most likely reason for drooping numbers isn’t any of those reasons, but that the games are just not that good. He writes “Sunday’s action was atrocious, highlighted by abysmal quarterback play and empty stadiums” and “The two marquee games on the schedule, Seahawks-Packers and Giants-Cowboys, were low-scoring snoozefests.” Reimer concludes “The NFL has been a loathsome organization for some time. But now the product is no longer good enough to cover the league’s faults. The play is getting uglier, and there’s no easy fix.”

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The NFL boycott is not the sole factor when it comes to determining the biggest cause in declining ratings. However, the fact that it has has either not been mentioned at all or tossed off as an aside to be dismissed in almost all of the coverage of the NFL’s ratings declines is curious, at best, and nefarious, at worst. In some ways it can be seen as an oversight due to the media’s seeming disbelief that a population that is dissatisfied with the perceived blackballing of a player who exercised his first amendment right to protest unpunished killings of Blacks by the police has any real power over an organization as strong as the NFL. In other ways, the lack of coverage of the boycott’s potential effects seems akin to Reimer’s assessment of commentator Chris Collingsworth’s  “embarrassing effort to ignore  [Dallas Cowboy running back] Ezekiel Elliott’s domestic violence case”–i.e., a concerted effort by an industry to protect an organization that is one of its biggest revenue drivers.

The ability to gloss over the boycott may change as the movement grows. In a piece titled “Meet the people behind a growing NFL boycott,” SB Nation’s Tyler Tines interviews some of the people in Chicago who have “come together to attack the league for Kaepernick’s continued unemployment and in support of athletes continuing his stand.” He writes, “[t]he continued boycotting from Chicago to Brooklyn to Huntsville, Ala., is a response to the belief the NFL is ignoring a part of its audience and what they care about,” namely civil rights for Black Americans.

“The boycotts ask: How can a league sell entertainment to Black audiences, when the Black men playing in it aren’t truly allowed to have a voice?,” writes Tines. He points to a statement made by the vice president of Atlanta’ NAACP, Gerald Giggs, who in August said “There will be no football in the state of Georgia if Colin Kaepernick is not on a training camp roster and given an opportunity to pursue his career. This is not a simple request. This is a statement. This is a demand.”

He says Giggs’ statement led to others, including a “#NoKaepernickNoNFL petition on started by 32-year-old Vic Oyedeji, [which] has grabbed more than 175,000 signatures to boycott the league.” Similarly, “Gloria Blake, an owner of Brooklyn Blew Smoke, a popular cigar lounge, is turning her space into a forum for conversations on race and protest instead of hosting NFL games,” and “Najee Ali, a Los Angeles activist, is doing non-violent actions with the National Action Network in front of Chargers and Rams games.”

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Whether a true boycott of the NFL will prove to be long-lasting (not to mention, effective) has yet to be seen. The #BoycottNFL hashtag on Twitter is littered with the voices of those taking a stance, but big media and the big money of advertisers are louder. If media outlets like NBC, CNN, and others begin to draw a clear line between the growing boycott movement and NFL ratings, it’s likely companies who spend millions on ads running during football games will be upset. The national anthem may be sacred to millions of Americans, but there’s nothing holier than the almighty dollar.

#BonusBeat: A recent Last 7 video from AFH examines (avid football fan, and former coach/player) Masta Ace announcing his boycott to the Direct TV NFL package, due to Colin Kaepernick not being signed:

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