NFL doing just fine in the ratings game
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.