Are NFL player protests 'massively, massively' hurting TV ratings?
SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports' NFL insider Lindsay H. Jones explains why NFL ratings were up in Week 3 despite President Trump's open criticism of players kneeling for the national anthem. USA TODAY Sports
Here's another strategy for morning-after quarterbacks to ponder: Are NFL players' kneeling protests hurting TV ratings and even, perhaps, driving down TV stocks?
The answer is likely to be as hotly contested as an NFL line of scrimmage. NFL ratings are down for the just-started season, just as they were last season, and the stocks of the major networks that have broadcast NFL games are falling, too. President Trump has linked the NFL's ratings, which he called "massively, massively" down, and players kneeling during the anthem, suggesting they were turning fans away.
The explanation for why the league's ratings are down is far more complicated. For a start, ratings for a variety of sports broadcasts have declined. NASCAR and the NBA have also drawn fewer TV viewers — likely influenced by huge shifts in the way fans watch sports and by other factors that may have drawn their attention away, from hurricanes to last year's drama-packed presidential election.
Before Trump's remarks on the NFL and his exhortation last weekend that fans boycott games if players didn't stand during the anthem, fans may have already tuned out in sympathy with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who says he used the spotlight to protest oppression of black people by the criminal justice system. Others may have backed away because they disagreed with Kaepernick's actions, as Trump suggests. And still others may have dropped the NFL for a totally separate reason: because of mounting evidence that many players have suffered severe brain disease, TV analysts say.
Ratings, stocks down
What's not disputed is that NFL ratings were down about 10% for the first three weeks of the season, which started Sept. 7, with about 15.8 million viewers (watching live or on DVR same-day), compared to 17.6 million during the first three weeks of 2016, according to Nielsen data. That follows a trend last year of overall viewership during the 2016 regular season, when ratings fell 8%.
During this past week of games after Trump's Friday night remarks, NFL viewership fell 4% from the prior week (not counting ESPN's Monday Night Football broadcast), Nielsen data shows. The NFL on Tuesday said that counting Monday Night Football, ratings in this most recent week climbed 3% from a year ago, when a presidential election debate conflicted with a game.
As the beginning of the NFL season has played out, stocks of networks that broadcast games and deliver pay-TV programming have taken hits, too. The overall stock market is up 2% in that time.
President Trump's comments that owners should fire or suspend players who protest, followed by tweets that called on fans to act, has sparked much broader protests. Many more NFL players kneeled as the national anthem was played at Sunday games.
One problem with making a direct, causal link between NFL ratings and protests: The firestorm of controversy in the past few days doesn't explain the down drift of ratings during the season's first two weeks, when any kneeling protest drew little attention, said Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst for Leichtman Research Group, a research firm that tracks media and entertainment.
A second data point that's clear: TV watching of all stripes, not just sports, is losing its hold over the American viewer.
Fewer U.S. homes, 79%, are getting pay-TV service, down from 84% in 2014, Leichtman says. And that fragmentation of the viewing public as more customers cut, shave or shirk the pay-TV cord impacts viewership, too. NFL ratings do not include most streaming options.
"Over the past 20 years, there's been a proliferation in channels, and now you have even more choices ... (with) Netflix, (Amazon) Prime (Video) and Hulu," Leichtman said.
The NFL attempted to schedule more desirable prime-time matchups to stoke viewing this season, but that hasn't played out. "Despite that proactive attempt, this season also seems to be off to a weaker-than-expected start in terms of the overall ratings," said Tuna Amobi, an equity analyst at investment research firm CFRA.
But about connecting Trump's comments to viewing declines, "I would be hard-pressed to draw that correlation," he said.
Hurricanes hitting the mainland — and subsequent recovery efforts — likely had an effect on viewership during the first two weeks with scores of Americans without electricity or too focused on the storms' aftermath to watch sports.
Last year, politics played a part in lower ratings, according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who attributed some of the decline to the presidential election.
Anecdotal evidence suggests some Trump supporters punted the NFL after Kaepernick began his protest against the oppression of people of color by sitting and later kneeling during the anthem, says Brian Wieser, an analyst with Pivotal Research Group.
"But at the same time is it also possible that maybe these people were in areas where football is played more and there’s actually more concern around head injuries ... or was that audience most distracted by election activity?"
Trump himself also acknowledged that other factors may have been at play, including "they like what's happening with ... yours truly" and restrictions to make the game safer for players.
After Donald Trump said NFL players should be fired for kneeling during the national anthem, NFL players, owners and coaches condemned Trump's comments. USA TODAY Sports
Stocks of TV companies broadcasting NFL games have been on a losing streak recently, but the NFL alone isn't to blame, Wieser says. "The sector has a lot of negative factors weighing on it," including a weak advertising market, declining pay-TV subscribers and the move to create their own direct-to-consumer streaming services, he said.
CBS (CBS) has seen its shares drop 9% over the past month to close at $58 Tuesday. Disney (DIS), which owns ESPN, has fallen about 4% over the past month to $98.63; Comcast (CMCSA), which owns NBC Universal, is down about 6% to $37.81; and Fox (FOX) is down 2% to $26.42.
Also down: AT&T (T), which owns DirecTV and offers its NFL Sunday Ticket package, is down 2% to $38.72, and TV operators Altice (ATUS) and Dish Network (DISH) have respective declines over the past month of 10% and nearly 8%.
Individually, however, networks had aspects to cheer about over the latest ratings. CBS said viewership of its Week 3 games rose 4% over last year, with its afternoon games (4:25 p.m. ET kickoff) including the Green Bay Packers' overtime win against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs vs. Los Angeles Chargers being the highest-rated NFL game of the week. After factoring out weather for Week 1, Fox said its NFL viewership is down 5% from last year. But its Sunday Fox NFL Kickoff pregame show drew 39% more than last year, suggesting viewers were interested in discussion of the Trump-national anthem dispute.
NBC's Sunday Night Football won its prime-time slot with 17.6 million viewers, peaking with 19.4 million during the second quarter. ESPN reported a 71% hike in viewership for its Monday night game between the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals, compared to last season, based on early Nielsen data from specific markets.
The NFL will continue to attract bidders — the networks, DirecTV and others including Amazon, which will broadcast 10 Thursday Night Football games this year starting this week, paid about $7 billion for telecast rights.
However, there is "unquestionably an overhang to be addressed, given the way the season has started in terms of the ratings," Amobi said.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.