When NFL ratings fell 10% last season, some team owners and fans argued that it was because players were kneeling during the National Anthem.
Others said the ratings drop was because big name players were injured, the match-ups were lackluster and the games too long.
Now that the NFL has ruled that players can’t kneel, the protests can no longer be used as an excuse for poor ratings.
On Wednesday, the NFL adopted a policy that requires players to either stand during the anthem or wait in the locker room. The new guidelines also say that teams will be fined if players are on the field and “do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”
The kneeling was started in 2016 by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest of the treatment of black Americans, particularly by police. He was joined by a number of players. The issue was amplified in 2017 after President Trump called on team owners to fire kneeling players. After his comments, scores of players joined the protest.
Several NFL owners expressed concern about the effects the protests were having on fans, sponsors and ratings.
Giants owner John Mara said “there’s no question [the protest] had an impact on the business.” Houston Texas owner Bob McNair said it was important to pay attention to fans’ concerns because without them “you’re dead.” Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan said fans are there to watch football and it was important not to have “distractions.”
While the NFL never directly blamed the protest for lagging ratings, Commissioner Roger Goodell made it clear that the league needed to “move past this controversy.” Wednesday’s rule change suggests that the league was feeling the pressure of the protests.
Some programming executives were more direct.
NBCUniversal chairman Linda Yaccarino said she felt ratings had been affected by the protests — but said there was likely no way to prove it. CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus echoed that sentiment. He said that the protests are “something [fans] don’t find attractive or they don’t find compelling in coverage of the football game.”
Others believe the drop in ratings have little or nothing to do with the kneeling protests.
A J.D. Power study of over 9,200 fans showed that only 3% of viewers who tuned out cited the protests as a reason.
According to the poll, others stopped watching games because they felt the league wasn’t addressing players’ social concerns, and some viewers were turned off by the way domestic violence cases were handled by the league. Other fans cited concerns about concussions.
Media executives also cited other problems with the NFL. 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch said in October that he thought ratings were down because there was an “overproliferation” of football. NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said he also thought there was “fatigue” on the part of fans with so many football games being broadcast.
Even while NFL ratings were down during the last two seasons, the league was still the most dominant programming in TV.
“Nothing beats the NFL when it comes to television that captures people’s attention” said 21st Century Fox President Peter Rice, after signing a new 5-year deal for “Thursday Night Football.”
Though it’s yet to be seen what will happen with this season’s ratings, the NFL is trying to address some other lingering issues. It will make sure that the best match-ups are slated for primetime during the 2018-2019 season.
The NFL has also focused on speeding up the pace of play and has worked with broadcasters to change how ads are run during games. It’s also partnered with social media companies to stream games differently and reach younger viewers.