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NFL Ratings Stabilize as National Anthem Protests Dwindle

Will the professional football league learn a lesson from the more positive metrics it's now beginning to see?

Now that politics are no longer the focal point of the games played by the National Football League — as they were when former quarterback Colin Kaepernick (shown above) started kneeling during the national anthem — it appears the league’s popularity is no longer in a free fall.

The league’s latest television metrics are a highly positive sign for the league.

Through the first four weeks of the season, the NFL’s TV ratings are actually up 1 percentage point from this time last season, as numerous outlets, included SportsBusiness Journal, have pointed out.

While that may not sound significant, it is a major improvement over the previous two seasons — and politics (or a lack thereof) is a major reason for the success.

During the 2016 and 2017 seasons, the league’s national anthem protests were a major point of discussion and were widespread throughout the league. As a result, the league experienced more than a 17-point drop in its television viewership split between the two seasons.

This year, however, the number of players protesting has dropped to just eight this past week (only three of whom knelt), as Sports Illustrated and other outlets are reporting.

In contrast, the protests peaked last season when 180 players knelt for the anthem in the final week of September, as ESPN’s Darren Rovell pointed out at the time. This metric did not even include the countless others who stayed in the locker room, raised fists, and/or locked arms as a means of protest in response to President Donald Trump’s suggestion that players who did not stand for the national anthem should be fired.

Television executives on networks who broadcast NFL games have even openly admitted to SportsBusiness Journal that the lack of national anthem protests has had a positive impact on the league’s TV ratings.

“It’s largely a resolved issue,” said Mike Mulvihill, a Fox Sports executive vice president of research, league operations, and strategy, of the league’s national anthem protests.

“That’s one of the reasons we are seeing stabilization in the numbers. There’s not a lot of new information there for fans to digest. Everyone has reached their own conclusion on it.”

CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus agreed with this sentiment, arguing that people do not watch sports to see political issues.

“One of the things that our research has showed [sic] is that when people are watching football games, in a perfect world they view it as an escape,” McManus said. “They want to get away from the politics and the other storylines that are dominating the media landscape.”

This idea fits in line with the Media Research Center’s findings last week. The group released a study claiming that 43 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to watch live sports or entertainment if those venues became too political.

“When people are watching football games, in a perfect world they view it as an escape. They want to get away from the politics and the other storylines that are dominating the media landscape.”

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports, also noted that by now, most people likely have their minds made up one way or the other on the national anthem issue — hence why they have not declined further.

The NFL is not experiencing right now anything near the pace of the losses it suffered over the previous two seasons.

However, the growth it’s currently seeing perhaps will give the league an idea of what it needs to do in order to preserve the fans it still has — and win back the disgruntled ones who have already left.

Tom Joyce is a freelance writer from the South Shore of Massachusetts. He covers sports, pop culture, and politics and has contributed to The Federalist, Newsday, and other outlets.