Anthem Protests Have Little Impact on Sunday NFL Ratings

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Dallas players, coaches and owner Jerry Jones kneeled before the national anthem in Monday's nights game.
Dallas players, coaches and owner Jerry Jones kneeled before the national anthem in Monday's nights game. Credit: Dallas Cowboys via Twitter

A wave of protests across the National Football League did not appear to have much effect on the TV ratings, as Sunday's final tune-in was largely consistent with the two previous weeks.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the regional and national Sunday NFL windows on CBS, Fox and NBC averaged 17.2 million overall viewers and a 10.0 household rating, down 4 percent in viewers and 1 percent in households from the Sunday prior, when just seven players declined to stand for the national anthem.

And compared to a year earlier, viewers for Sunday's protest-filled telecasts were down 8% from 18.7 million. That's on par with the 8 percent drop from the first two weeks of last season to the opening two weeks this season.

If the overnights for ESPN's "Monday Night Football" Cowboys-Cardinals telecast are any indication, the aggregate NFL deliveries for Week 3 could be up as much as 4 percent once the final numbers are in. (The game, which featured a pre-anthem interval in which Dallas players and coaching staff locked arms and took a knee alongside owner Jerry Jones, averaged a 9.3 overnight rating, up 66 percent versus last year's Falcons-Saints contest. In keeping with the slipperiness of making year-over-year comparisons, that NFC South duel was the lowest-rated "MNF" telecast on the books, largely because it went head-to-head with the first presidential debate, which averaged 81 million viewers.)

In other words, President Trump's claim that the league is facing a "tremendous backlash" is not yet supported by the ratings.

While there's no question that the anthem protests and Trump's mockery of the players who participate in them have millions of Americans on all ends of the ideological spectrum seeing red, no one can say for sure if the controversy will have a lasting impact on the NFL's core business. For one thing, ratings performances in Sunday's various windows varied widely. For another, it's uncertain whether the protests will continue beyond this past weekend, or at what scale.

As for the NFL's ratings this season so far, a few weeks of data isn't a sufficient sample size. The story will only continue to develop and mutate as play goes on.

One area of concern for the NFL's broadcast partners is the churn in the regional/single-header windows. Through the first three weeks of the season, the regional games on CBS and Fox are averaging 13.4 million viewers, down 18 percent from the year-ago 16.3 million. (Some of that slide may be attributed to the low turnout for the season's first slate of Sunday games, when Hurricane Irma was throwing three of the top TV markets into utter disarray.) By comparison, the Fox/CBS late-national window has slipped just 1 percent to 23.4 million viewers, while "Sunday Night Football" deliveries are off 8 percent year-over-year.

Attendance is holding up relatively well. Season-to-date, 3.15 million fans have filed into NFL stadiums across the nation, which marks a 6 percent decline from the year-ago 3.36 million. Not helping matters: The Week 1 Bucs-Dolphins game that was wiped off the schedule by Hurricane Irma and the anemic showing by the relocated Los Angeles Chargers, averaging just 25,400 attendees per game in the cozy confines of Carson, California's StubHub Center.

However the NFL story shakes out, it's worth noting that football remains TV's last reliable reach vehicle. To put the league's hegemony into context, the three late-national windows thus far have averaged 12.6 million adults 18 to 49, or about two-and-a-half more advertiser-coveted viewers than the 5 million members of the demo who tuned in to Monday night's season premiere of broadcast's highest-rated scripted series, "The Big Bang Theory."

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