As the NFL’s 2017 season began, all the league’s broadcast partners were deeply interested in showing the national anthem in order to highlight the protests by millionaire players. However, as Week 6 hit and ratings continued to crater, those same broadcasters have bailed on the anthem protests, almost entirely.
The networks’ sudden about-face on the anthem issue was abrupt enough for Sporting News to pointedly ask, “Protests? What protests?”
There were very few live shots of the anthem segment during the Week 6 games. The move away from airing the anthem not only took away the players’ platform to protest on TV, but also nixed the scenes of fans showering the protesting players with boos
Instead of airing the anthem, CBS, Fox, and NBC aired commercials — the usual broadcasting practice from past seasons.
The networks will likely say that this decision was made because the protests are no longer “newsworthy,” and have become common. However, as the Sporting News notes, the serious ratings crash may also be a reason:
You can’t blame the NFL TV partners for being worried. Through Week 5, the NFL TV numbers were down 7.2 percent, according to Nielsen data. That drop came on top of a 7 percent downturn last season. Through Week 5 of the 2017 season, NFL games averaged 15.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That’s down 7.42 percent from an average of 16.371 million viewers through the same period of the 2016 season, and 18 percent down from the average of 18.438 million viewers through the first five weeks of the 2015 season.
Indeed, Week 6 saw better ratings than Weeks one through five, with CBS up seven percent over Week 6 of last year and NBC getting a 21 percent boost over last year. In fact, one source said CBS had its best NFL night of the year, though it is still worse than other recent seasons.
The ratings have been so bad for CBS in particular, that Credit Suisse is warning that flagging NFL ratings will hurt the network’s bottom line. The network will perhaps see as much as a three percent decline in advertising revenue.
With fans increasingly turning against the NFL because of their distaste over the anthem protests, the networks are starting to get the message that the protests are not ideal TV fodder. Will the NFL also learn this lesson?
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.