NFL Ratings Surge as Kaepernick Controversy Recedes

AP Photo Ted S. Warren
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

In the midst of the steep NFL ratings drop of 2016-2017, the majority of the sports media was insistent that the decline had nothing to do with Colin Kaepernick’s protests.

Now, with the NFL’s ratings returning to form and Kaepernick (for the most part) returning to obscurity, a new refrain has emerged: NFL Ratings Are Back, in Large Part, Because Kaepernick Is Gone.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Linear ratings for the {NFL} hit a multiyear bottom in 2017, prompting a rash of speculation about whether pro football’s stranglehold atop the Nielsen charts was coming to an end.”

However, through the first six weeks of the 2019 season, the league has seen a reversal of fortune.

“…NFL games across all its television partners are averaging about 16.3 million viewers, up 3 percent from last season’s average of 15.8 million. Since hitting a low for this decade of 15 million viewers in 2017, viewership has climbed 9 percent and is on par with the 2016 season (16.5 million),” THR reports.
So, what gives?

Reasons for the turnaround abound: Legalized gambling, growth in fantasy sports, and more scoring, all factor in to some degree.

However, given that the NFL’s ratings crash happened to coincide with the advent of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest movement, it would be absurd to not ask what impact the almost complete disappearance of the protest movement has had on league ratings.

Fox Sports Executive Vice President and Head of Strategy and Analytics Michal Mulvihill, suggests the absence of the protests, has had an impact.

“If the conversation around football is primarily about the game, then we’re probably winning,” Mulvihill explained. “And if the conversation is about topics away from the game, we’re probably losing. I think the focus for the past season and a half has become more where we’d like it to be, which is just on the games.”

Of course, there was no topic “away from the game” in 2016 and 2017, that dominated the headlines more than Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests.

Michael Nathanson, a media analyst at MoffettNathanson, sees the NFL returning to its traditional role as an escape from politics, as being a factor in the improved ratings.

“I also think we as Americans want an escape from all the political back-and-forth,” Nathanson said. “You have a bit of escapism, you have higher scoring, you have some younger players, perhaps you have some gambling influence. It’s all kind of working together.”

Seems like “sticking to sports” is the way to go.

Follow Dylan Gwinn on Twitter @themightygwinn


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