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NFL’s 2019 ratings bonanza shows power of league … and of protests

This time three years ago, the NFL was deep in a ratings crisis, viewership for its usually invulnerable product off by as much as double-digit percentages. Some attributed the decline to the ongoing protests during the national anthem that had consumed so much of the previous two years. Others pointed to changing societal viewing and entertainment habits. All agreed, though, that the NFL was facing an unprecedented viewership crisis.

Amazing how a few years of decent football can change an entire narrative.

The four networks broadcasting football — NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN — have reported their final ratings numbers for the 2019 season, and the results are virtually unanimous. All four networks saw significant gains and their best numbers since 2015 (NBC) and 2016 (FoxCBSESPN’s Monday Night Football). NBC’s Sunday Night Football ended the year as the country’s top primetime show for the ninth consecutive year, averaging 20.5 million viewers. CBS claimed the most-watched regular-season game of the year: Buffalo-Dallas on Thanksgiving, with 32.6 million viewers. 

While hard feelings clearly remain from the Colin Kaepernick-led and -inspired protests of 2016, the hard numbers show that the league has bounced back completely from those tumultuous days. 

Did protest backlash cause ratings declines?

One interesting element of the ratings drop was just how many people — myself included — tried to find any answer other than the protests to explain the decline. Admitting that backlash to the protests caused the ratings to drop would mean admitting that protest opponents actually possessed the power they claimed to — which in turn would mean admitting that single-minded opposition to new ideas, willful ignorance, and bad-faith exploitation of genuine patriotism is a strategy that can pay off, if you’re cynical enough to use it. Many Americans opposed Kaepernick’s protest on honest philosophical grounds, but many of the loudest opponents either missed or distorted his message for their own ends.

(Once more, for the record: Kaepernick and the other players weren’t protesting the anthem itself. They were protesting during the anthem — silently, briefly, not during game time — and based their protests on Kaepernick’s consultation with a veteran. Plus, protest against what you see as unjust authority is literally the basis for the founding of this country; it doesn’t get any more patriotic than that.) 

Pollsters — and parents of high schoolers — will tell you that it’s more instructive to watch what people do than what they say. Observing an action records a much more accurate analysis of behavior than listening to someone explain that action. Plus, it’s easier than ever to craft a carefully curated bubble these days that reinforces your own beliefs while keeping out all others.

To this point: over the last three years, I’ve received dozens if not hundreds of emails from readers declaring that they and everyone they knew was done with the NFL because of the protests, ergo the NFL is dying. But here’s the thing: if everyone you knew, and everyone they knew, and then everyone they knew suddenly stopped watching the NFL, it still wouldn’t register as a blip on ratings data. Anecdotal evidence isn’t hard evidence. (Irony alert: this entire paragraph also counts as anecdotal evidence.) 

What’s clear, though, is that as flawed as the ratings system is, it’s still the closest we’ve got to hard evidence. And, given the NFL’s recent resurgence in popularity, it’s worth re-visiting a few earlier explanations for the ratings drop:

  • Cord-cutting: In theory, fans fleeing cable for OTT streaming services were responsible for the decline in ratings. 

  • Entertainment options: Between the thousands of new shows, movies, video games and apps out each year, the thinking went, the league was suffering from outside competition.

Both of those elements explain why the overall audience for all television has declined, but they don’t explain why the NFL has surged back in popularity. 

  • Lack of compelling players: The 2016 and 2017 seasons came before the real emergence of game-changing talents like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. But if people were tuning in just to see those players, why are ratings up for almost all games?

  • Rules changes, off-field behavior, etc.: The NFL’s maddening — no pun intended — rules remain as infuriating today as they did three years ago, through the decline and the resurgence. And there’s been no indication that the league’s domestic violence issues are anywhere close to resolved, any more than they were three years ago.

  • Hurricanes, presidential debates, awards shows, etc.: Analysts trotted out a variety of one-off events as short-term excuses, but those didn’t hold up as time passed and the ratings remained depressed.

Which leads us to:

  • Protests: The theory here is that fans, disgusted by the acts of protesters (or, to another degree, the NFL’s treatment of Kaepernick) tuned out of NFL games in numbers sufficient to register in ratings data. 

Starting to look a little more plausible, isn’t it? The focus on protests is the only persistent element of the ratings equation that’s changed significantly in the last three years. Every other influence during the ratings’ slide has also been present during the ratings’ increase. Straight up, then: the backlash to the protests contributed, to a significant degree, to the recent ratings drop.

But before critics of the Kaepernick et al. protests gloat too much, it’s worth noting that three years on, the NFL is not dying, mortally wounded, or really even scratched by the effects of the protests. Indeed, several players continue to kneel even now, albeit without the media coverage and jersey-burning outrage of 2016-17. The NFL has signed, or soon will sign, enormous new broadcast contracts. Super Bowl ad numbers continue to break records, and remain valuable enough that noted NFL opponent President Trump has apparently bought a slot for a campaign commercial. And, most importantly, whatever fans were lost in the ratings dip — whether because they were taking a stand or because they were casual fans with little brand loyalty — have either returned, or more than been replaced.

Which brings us around to the forward view. With the last lingering effects of the protests now in the rearview mirror, what can the NFL learn from this going forward? The kneejerk response — and the one the NFL will almost surely follow — is that dissent can have an impact on the bottom line, and must therefore be crushed. 

That’s the easy lesson, but it’s not the larger one. The reality is that the NFL had far more power than it ever believed it did to stand up to its critics, right up to President Trump. People want their football, regardless of their political views. One way or another, they’ll find their way back to the league.

Colin Kaepernick and teammates kneel in 2016. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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