NFL do­ing just fine in the rat­ings game

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Nancy Ar­mour

The num­bers don’t lie. Re­mem­ber that the next time Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump or one of his min­ions do. NFL rat­ings are not tank­ing in re­sponse to the player protests. In fact, they’ve had lit­tle, if any, ef­fect, ac­cord­ing to a new USA TO­DAY anal­y­sis of “Sun­day Night Foot­ball” view­er­ship last sea­son. Less than a per­cent­age point de­cline in mar­kets where Trump won big in 2016, the same as mar­kets where nei­ther he nor Hil­lary Clin­ton had a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage. Even more telling is that in mar­kets where the lo­cal team was good — say, Pittsburgh or New Or­leans — rat­ings were higher. In mar­kets where the lo­cal team was bad — point­ing at you, Phoenix and In­di­anapo­lis — rat­ings were lower. In other words, it’s foot­ball that drives NFL rat­ings, not faux out­rage. And you can be sure there will be more of that out­rage com­ing the NFL’s way now that Judge Brett Ka­vanaugh is on the Supreme Court and Trump needs some­thing else to ex­cite the base for the midterm elec­tions. White fear and re­sent­ment have been at the core of Trump’s pres­i­dency. This no­tion that white peo­ple — white men in par­tic­u­lar — are los­ing their right­ful place of priv­i­lege in so­ci­ety, and they will have to treat women and peo­ple of color if not with de­cency and re­spect, then at least equally. The NFL player protests have been his per­fect foil. In Trump’s view, the protests aren’t an ef­fort to call at­ten­tion to the racism that con­tin­ues to un­der­cut our ju­di­cial, ed­u­ca­tional and eco­nomic sys­tems. No, these are black men who didn’t know their place — “sons of (ex­ple­tives),” he’s called them — and were dis­re­spect­ing the flag, the mil­i­tary, mom and ap­ple pie in the process. Know­ing it riles up Trump’s base. He even sent Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence to In­di­anapo­lis last sea­son so he could walk out in a huff, a stunt that cost tax­pay­ers at least $325,000. Trump has crowed about de­clin­ing rat­ings and pre­dicted the protests would be the NFL’s demise. Only that hasn’t been the case. Yes, NFL rat­ings have seen a de­cline, as has pretty much ev­ery­thing else on tele­vi­sion. Cord cut­ting has changed the way a good por­tion of Amer­i­cans, par­tic­u­larly those un­der 30, watch tele­vi­sion, and that’s re­flected in the rat­ings. But the NFL is still king. NFL games ac­counted for the three most-watched tele­casts in 2017 and six of the top 10. “Sun­day Night Foot­ball” was the most­watched series of 2017. Even at the height of Trump’s blus­ter, when he was urg­ing NFL own­ers to fire play­ers who protested and #boy­cottNFL was trend­ing, the USA TO­DAY anal­y­sis found lit­tle cor­re­la­tion in the rat­ings. NFL rat­ings dipped slightly from mid-Septem­ber through late-Oc­to­ber last year. But that mir­rored the drop dur­ing the same pe­riod in 2016, re­gard­less of whether a mar­ket was in Trump coun­try, Clin­ton coun­try or luke­warm to both. “It un­der­lines the fact that fans ei­ther are com­ing back or they aren’t go­ing away,” Richard Lapchick, di­rec­tor of The In­sti­tute for Di­ver­sity and Ethics in Sport, told USA TO­DAY. “Maybe it didn’t have as big of an im­pact as (Trump) said he did.” Of course it didn’t. The protests were never about the an­them or the mil­i­tary or the flag. That was a smoke­screen to de­tract from the real mes­sage. As that’s be­come clear, opin­ions on the protests have shifted. The num­ber of play­ers who protest also has dropped sig­nif­i­cantly, and the fo­cus now seems to be more on what play­ers are do­ing off the field and why Colin Kaeper­nick still doesn’t have a job. There are peo­ple who turned off the NFL when Kaeper­nick be­gan the protest move­ment in 2016, and some of them haven’t re­turned. But those num­bers were never as sub­stan­tial as Trump and oth­ers tried to claim. The NFL has its flaws, no ques­tion. But it re­mains one of the strong­est threads in this coun­try’s fab­ric, pro­vid­ing us with a small but solid patch of com­mon ground. We might not be able to have a civil dis­cus­sion about pol­i­tics, but we can all agree that Pa­trick Ma­homes is amaz­ing and Jon Gru­den was an id­iot for trad­ing Khalil Mack. The NFL isn’t dy­ing, and its TV rat­ings aren’t plum­met­ing. Don’t let any­one tell you oth­er­wise. Even the pres­i­dent.

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