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The NFL's ratings are down. But national anthem protests aren't the whole story.

President Trump wants to blame the protests — but most of the decline is driven by cord-cutting.

Denver Broncos v Buffalo Bills
Players for the Buffalo Bills kneel during the national anthem at their game on Sunday, September 24.
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

President Donald Trump, who never met a news story he couldn’t make about either himself or TV ratings, has taken on the National Football League, saying that pro football’s slumping ratings are the result of some combination of rule changes designed to prevent head injuries, national anthem protests meant to call attention to police violence against black Americans, and (of course) Donald Trump himself.

“The No. 1 reason [ratings are down] happens to be that they like watching what happens with yours truly,” Trump said at a Friday rally to support US Senate candidate Luther Strange in Alabama. “They like what's happening.”

He abandoned this line of argument pretty quickly, however; by Sunday, Trump had declared on Twitter that the primary reason for the ratings slide were the national anthem protests.

As is often the case when Trump talks about TV ratings, he’s correct in a big-picture sense: The NFL’s ratings are down. But he’s also lacking the necessary context, because attributing that slide to any one factor — as opposed to the massive ratings declines facing all television programming — is specious at best.

There are a bunch of different reasons NFL ratings could be down, and they’re likely interrelated; there’s no one most obvious culprit.

The NFL’s ratings are down across the board — but it really depends on the game

Los Angeles Rams vs San Francisco 49ers
Ratings for the latest Thursday Night Football game between the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers were up compared to last year.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The important thing to remember about Nielsen ratings is that they’re a statistical sample. They’re not counting literally every eyeball watching every show. Instead, they’re tallying the viewership of Americans thought to represent their specific demographics, then extrapolating from that viewership to say how many total viewers there are throughout the country. So any given viewership number is a mostly accurate, but not completely accurate, estimate — it simply can’t be completely accurate given how Nielsen tallies its numbers.

Additionally, the more variables you introduce into a particular problem, the harder it becomes to really drill down and say, “This show’s ratings are down from year to year.” It’s easy to say, for example, that Modern Family isn’t pulling the same numbers it did last year because it’s stayed in the same time slot and is still more or less the same show — the actors have just gotten another year older.

But the ratings for the NFL as a whole depend on a whole variety of factors. If you live in north Florida and Jacksonville Jaguars games dominate your NFL broadcasts, you might be less likely to tune in than someone living in New England who gets the Patriots in a comparable timeslot. Similarly, a good game will draw stronger viewership throughout its runtime than a bad one.

For an example, check out Sports Media Watch’s tally of how the NFL’s recent ratings in various timeslots compare to the 2016-’17 season. Last week’s Thursday Night Football game, which the Los Angeles Rams won in a 41-39 squeaker over the San Francisco 49ers, posted a 38 percent gain in viewership over the comparable Thursday night game from a year earlier, when the Patriots destroyed the Houston Texans 27-0. Viewers keep watching a good game; they tune out of a bad one.

Similarly, the Trump-stirred controversy over the national anthem protests seems to have driven up the ratings for CBS and Fox’s pregame shows this past Sunday. (Networks typically don’t air the anthem on live TV; this week, they did.) When all is said and done — and Monday Night Football, featuring the ever-popular Dallas Cowboys, is factored in — ratings for the NFL in week three should just squeak by the ratings for NFL week three in 2016, even though several games were down when compared to 2016.

But still, the NFL’s ratings are sliding. They were down 15 percent in week two, and at this time last year, they were already off by 8 percent from 2015. The ratings slide isn’t just consistent — in some weeks, it’s accelerating. And though there are weeks when the reasons for a decrease are obvious (as when the arrival of Hurricane Irma affected this year’s week one ratings, as you can see on the Sports Media Watch chart), there isn’t an ongoing major news story like the presidential election, which was cited as one source of the 2016 ratings decline.

Whatever is happening seems likely to keep happening. So why are NFL ratings sliding, when they were once considered the single greatest bulwark against the ratings decline across television?

The biggest factor driving the decline in football ratings affects all sports ratings

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven
Unless you’re the Chicago Cubs winning a World Series, good luck drawing record TV ratings.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Sure, the NFL’s ratings are down. But have you looked at the NBA’s ratings? How about MLB’s? Even NASCAR, which once posted some of the biggest ratings growth in sports, has been flagging. Under the right circumstances (as we saw with the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series to record ratings), a sporting event can still post historic ratings. But the circumstances really have to be right.

For a long time, sports were considered TV’s best chance to hang onto cable subscribers, because there isn’t much of a benefit to watching a game days or weeks after it airs. For sports-loving cord cutters, the tradeoff of paying lower cable bills was that they couldn’t always watch the big game without going out to a bar or buying an over-the-air antenna. Things got even more difficult if the leagues they were most interested in were ones whose TV packages are tied to cable networks like ESPN. (The NFL still airs most of its games on CBS, NBC, and Fox, which are available to cord-cutters with an antenna, which may help explain why its ratings declines have been somewhat milder than other leagues’ declines.)

And the number of Americans who are cutting the cable cord, once relatively small despite massive media attention, has started to grow precipitously in recent years. A survey by firm eMarketer shows that 22 million Americans will have cut the cord by the end of 2017, a growth of 33 percent over 2016, while 34 million Americans will have never paid for cable service, up just under 6 percent over 2016.

These numbers don’t include streaming services and so-called “skinny bundles” like Sling TV or even streaming services like CBS All Access, which offer programming from select networks (including the NFL in the case of the latter), delivered via the internet rather than a cable box. But they still point to how ubiquitous cord cutting is becoming, especially among younger viewers.

And, really, if you’re going to cut the cord, there are still ways to keep up with the games you want to see. Many leagues offer streaming packages of one sort or another, including the NFL. And if you just want to see the highlights, many are posted to social media and sites like SB Nation or Deadspin. It’s increasingly easy to follow sports without actually watching them.

Communal viewing is also becoming an ever more popular way of watching sports

Leicester City Fans Gather To Watch Their Match Against Manchester United
These English people are watching a soccer game in a pub, which doesn’t really have anything to do with this article, but you’ll hopefully recognize the situation.
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Because the Nielsen ratings are a statistical sample, there are certain gaps in their ability to count viewership. One of those gaps is large audiences who get together to watch sports (or other big cultural events) at places like bars and house parties.

As more and more young viewers cut the cord, if they want to watch a game, it’s often easier to head over to the local Buffalo Wild Wings — which almost certainly subscribes to a package like DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket (which gets every game around the country). But they won’t be accurately reflected in the Nielsen count, at least unless networks subscribe to Nielsen’s out-of-home ratings, which sees the service take its best stab at estimating how many people are watching at bars, restaurants, and other communal spaces.

This is a common excuse for why the NFL’s ratings are down. The cord-cutters are still watching, those who make this argument say. They’re just doing so in the wilds of bars and restaurants.

Indeed, when Nielsen released its estimate of how many viewers watched the NFL in communal spaces in 2016, that estimate essentially erased the ratings gap between 2015 and 2016 — though Nielsen’s 2015 number doesn’t account for viewers in communal spaces, so this piece of evidence may not be as persuasive as the NFL wants to think it is.

What all of this comes down to is that, in any instance where you’re dealing with television ratings declines, explanations necessarily have to start with “fewer people are watching television in ways easily measured by Nielsen, period,” and then move on to the intangibles. And a survey conducted over the summer suggests that there are, indeed, intangibles.

At least some NFL viewers really have tuned out thanks to the national anthem protests — but almost as many have stopped watching thanks to the league’s domestic violence problems

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick kneels in protest of police violence at a game in 2016.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Over the summer, J.D. Power and Associates surveyed 9,200 sports fans to ask them if they had watched more NFL games, fewer NFL games, or about the same number of NFL games in 2016, as opposed to 2015. (When PolitiFact asked about this, a spokesperson for the president cited this far more dramatic — but also far more suspect — Seton Hall study.)

The top-line stat was that most fans continued to watch football. The highest percentage of fans (62 percent) said they had continued to watch around the same amount of football, compared to 27 percent answering “more” and 12 percent answering “less.” You’ll see this borne out in the weekly TV ratings, too. Regardless of the size of its overall ratings decline, the NFL remains the top program on TV, week after week, because everything else is sliding more quickly.

But if you dig into the people who say “less viewership,” you’ll find that two out of the top three answers are related directly to social and political debates surrounding the NFL. The top answer — given by 26 percent of respondents — was that the national anthem protests were the reason these fans had watched fewer games. But right behind the protests, tied for second at 24 percent (with “too many delays in the game”), were the NFL’s ongoing issues with players being accused of domestic abuse, which had been the big scandal enveloping the league before Colin Kaepernick first took a knee.

Those numbers are more or less identical, and they’re not far ahead of the answer in fourth place — given by 20 percent of respondents — which says the games have become clogged with too many ads. (Following those answers up were “interest in the presidential election” at 16 percent and “cord cutting” at 5 percent.) Still, these studies have been interpreted by some — including the president, apparently — to mean that the ratings decline is most attributable to the national anthem protests.

And yet if you dig further into the J.D. Power numbers, as noted by Vox’s sister site, SB Nation, you’ll note that the 26 percent applies to just 12 percent of total survey respondents — i.e., just under 300 people out of the 9,200 surveyed, which ultimately equates to around 3 percent of the total sample. As with any survey, the smaller the number of respondents, the more dangerous it is to draw any massive conclusions from their answers.

Some of the respondents who said the national anthem protests were the reason they watched fewer games might have been trying to score a political point. Some might have watched just as much football objectively but felt like they watched less because of the protests. And so on. But all of my suppositions are impossible to prove, and that’s because when the numbers in a survey like this get so small, it’s dangerous to draw any one conclusion from them.

Are there people who have stopped watching the NFL because of the protests? Sure, almost certainly. But arguing that the protests are the main reason the NFL’s ratings are down — without accounting for the massive changes in the television industry that are dragging down live ratings across the board — makes very little sense.

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