“The NFL has gone from being one of the most unifying institutions in this country to probably the most divisive sports brand we have," said Mark Leibovich, author of "Big Game: the NFL in Dangerous Times, "and one of the reasons is politics."
The New York Times Magazine editor made these comments during an appearance on The Daily Show the same week that USA Today released their study on whether or not President Donald Trump is right in his claim that the NFL is being hurt by player protests.
Having previously written on this topic extensively I can speak from experience and validate the following:
1.) Leibovich is absolutely right about the division that exists
2.) Trumpers do love to tell the internet that they're not watching the NFL, and that their boycott is due to players taking a knee during the national anthem.
If you're in the MAGA crowd, well we have some bad news for you and your boycott- it's not even making a dent. The NFL is doing just fine without you.
To best analyze the health of the NFL, one must assess revenues, attendance and viewership. Only one of those three categories, the last one, has been studied in detail lately and received coverage in the media recently. It's also the only area where the Trump cult can honestly damage the National Football League, because they are not (and never have been) the group that asserts dominance on league attendance or revenue to begin with.
If you're going to see a Trumper effect it will be in the Nielsen numbers, and it's just not there, or very weak at best, according to the USA Today. "The nation's newspaper" looked at TV viewership for Sunday Night Football (consistently the highest rated show on television, a sentence that should definitely keep things in proper perspective here) in 37 markets during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. They curated data from Comscore on the percentage of television sets in a given market that were tuned to the NBC broadcast.
Then, they looked at how those markets places voted in the 2016 Presidential election, plus various football factors.
They found that more people were watching the game if their local team was relevant, winning or entertaining. In other words, it's the same old story as it's always been with football, or any other product for that matter. If you make a quality product, the demand to consume it will be higher,
The USA Today study found that "people stuck with football if there was a "football reason" to watch. The data show that quality football and home team loyalty drove the TV audience far more than political tribalism."
Trump has reveled in any statistics that show a decline in NFL ratings, and he posited the idea that the national anthem protests would be end of the league.
His prediction, inspired at least partially by the sense of rejection he still feels from not being allowed into the fraternity of NFL ownership many years ago, has been dead wrong. His persistent attacks on players protesting police brutality and racial injustice during the Star-Spangled Banner serve a political purpose for him.
He's tossing red meat to his base, in the hopes that it will re-energize them as the midterm elections approach in November. He knows this topic stirs up strong feelings in a subset of the population that both looks at him favorably, and typically does not bother to stay very well informed on the issues.
While this group knows, as well as the rest of us do who are paying attention that NFL ratings have declined, they don't know the actual reason for it, and they're willing to take Trump's word on it.
Television in Decline
Just about everything on television has seen a decline in ratings in recent years and that includes the NFL. Cord cutting is the main reason, and we see this effect most extensively in the millenial generation and younger. The way that this country watches television has changed dramatically, and it's not going back to the way it once was.
However, as ESPN NASCAR Analyst/former NBA and college basketball star Brad Daugherty once told me in an interview, the NFL slaughters everything. NBC's Sunday Night Football was the most-watched television series of 2017. The NFL can also claim the three most-watched telecasts in 2017, and six of the top 10.
At a time when almost all of our tastes in almost every genre of entertainment are in niches, football brings together all these varying demographics under one very big tent. It's a very uniquely situated sport that's played at time when most people aren't outside, not traveling and typically off of work. It's what makes the league more than just a sports tour de force, but a cultural tour de force.
The "Shield" rules not just the American sports sector, but the entertainment sector. Let's take a look at how the shield stacks up against the game commonly referred to as "the national past times." John Ourand, of Sports Business Journal tweeted out the following viewership numbers from ESPN on Monday October 1st:
Brewers-Cubs: 2.532M viewers
Rockies-Dodgers: 2.688M viewers
Chiefs-Broncos: 13.214M viewers
The "Monday Night Football" viewership number is up 11% from last year. The most recent MLB tiebreaker game was in 2013 when TBS averaged 2.938M viewers for a primetime matchup between Tampa Bay and Texas.
So there you have it, even when NFL ratings are in decline, a regular season game still completely dwarfs playoff baseball.
The aforementioned term of "cord-cutting," refers to people abolishing their cable packages. The expansive proliferation of channels has increased costs, and an easy, effective way for people looking to save money is to cut the expense of a full-service cable bill.
Dom Caristi, a telecommunications professor at Ball State University, maintains that there are three reasons why a supposed Trump driven boycott wouldn't substantially decline the NFL ratings numbers.
Boycott's Historical Impact on Television
First, boycotts of TV programming in general, are rarely successful.
Earlier this year, advertisers were told to boycott Full Frontal after Samantha Bee used inappropriate language referring to the president’s daughter. Only one advertiser withdrew, and the program is still on the air.
The Parents Television Council (a public interest group that often calls for boycotts) called for an advertiser boycott of the show $#*! My Dad Says in 2010. The show lasted only six months, but did not have any trouble lining up advertisers. In 2012 the PTC asked advertisers to boycott America’s Got Talent because of the presence of Howard Stern. Obviously advertisers did not pull out.
A few advertisers did temporarily stop supporting Married With Children back in 1989 over a call for a boycott, but ratings for the show went up and advertisers returned. The show continued for another 8 years.
Secondly, as the member of the university’s Digital Policy Institute, points out, last year’s NFL ratings decline can’t be attributed to a boycott. Research has shown that NFL ratings were declining long before anyone “called for a boycott."
Thirdly, it is difficult to sustain interest in any news story over time, so calls for a boycott, if effective, are likely to lose effect over time. Even major disaster stories, wars, famine, etc., cease to maintain viewer interest over time. People likely to be influenced by a call for a boycott are likely to return to their “natural” media behavior after a period of time – sometimes, not very long after.
In the case of the NFL, if anyone did stop watching in support of the boycott they would be likely to go back to watching if a specific game has a strong appeal to them.
Finally, at the end of the day, the NFL, or any other professional sport for that matter is a business. With this issue, business trumps politics, and it always has. On September 27th, the Carolina Panthers signed safety Eric Reid, who was among the first players to take a knee during the national anthem when he joined Colin Kaepernick on the San Francisco 49ers' sideline during the 2016 season in protesting social and racial injustice.
Reid continued protesting during the 2017 season and later joined Kaepernick in filing a collusion grievance against the NFL. Reid started at safety last week for the Panthers, after he took a knee during the Star-Spangled Banner. He also told the media prior to the game that the Panthers didn't even bother asking him about his plans for the national anthem before they signed him.
In other words, an actual NFL team didn't see a player protesting the anthem as having potential adverse effects. They were so unconcerned about the concept that they didn't didn't even bother to weigh it as a factor into making their decision.
Has Trump's Call For Boycott Impacted NFL Wagering?
NFL consistently represents the largest volume in sports betting in the US and in 2017, it was at 36%. Notably, it was the lowest percentage since 1992. When you look at overall betting numbers in Nevada in 2017, according to David Purdham, there was more money bet on sports in Nevada in 2017 than any previous year.
Nevada sports books won $248.7 million, an all-time record, in 2017. $4.86 billion was wagered in 2017, also an all-time high, according to Nevada Gaming Control.
— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) January 31, 2018
It's hard to imagine anything getting in the way of sports gamblers betting on their favorite sports. Sharp bettors make a living off of watching, analyzing and betting on sports. Let's take a look at the wagering of the largest NFL betting event, the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl certainly brings out large sharp bets, but it also brings forward a large percentage of casual bettors. The Super Bowl date landed in the crosshairs of Trump's call for Boycott. Let's take a look at how it did in Nevada sportsbooks:
2016 Super Bowl Wagers: $132.54 million
2017 Super Bowl Wagers: $138.48 million
2018 Super Bowl Wagers: $158.6 million
The rise of the #MAGA movement, and the alternative reality where Trump and those in the FOX News Channel bubble live has inspired a "facts don't matter anymore" narrative. Unfortunately, for them while you are entitled to your own views, you're not entitled to your own numbers and statistics.
As we've seen, the data doesn't lie and it doesn't care about misnomers that are widely held within the far right.