The NFL kicked off its 2018 season last Thursday with a game between Philadelphia and Atlanta. Despite the attractiveness of the matchup, television ratings were down 8 percent from last year’s opening Thursday night game. And last year’s rating were down 12 percent from the previous year’s.
This prompted President Trump to tweet:
Wow, NFL first game ratings are way down over an already really bad last year comparison. Viewership declined 13%, the lowest in over a decade. If the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back? Otherwise worse!
From the outset, there were several problems with this tweet. For one thing, the Philadelphia-Atlanta contest was delayed by bad weather. This likely accounted for some of the decline in viewership.
Second, player pre-game protests have all but vanished. In the 14 season openers played so far, I gather that only two players, both from the Miami Dolphins, refused to stand for the National Anthem. A third Dolphin stood but raised his fist.
Nor, prior to the game, was there likely to be much pre-game protest activity. Unlike last year, nothing in the pre-season presaged protests on a large scale. Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia’s protester-in-chief, had said he was moving on from the anthem. Thus, it wasn’t very plausible to think that the prospect of player protests accounted for much of the 8 percent decline in viewership last Thursday.
Now that the ratings are in for Sunday’s game, Trump’s tweet seems even less well-founded. CBS had its best opening NFL single-header rating in three years. The opening game of Fox’s doubleheader had a rating six percent higher than last year. Its second game, between Carolina and Dallas, was up slightly from last year.
NBC’s Sunday night game didn’t fare as well. Its rating was down 8 percent from last season. However, last season’s game featured the Giants and the Cowboys, which is always going to outdraw the Bears and Packers. Moreover, this year’s game appeared to be settled by halftime. The Bears led 17-0 and star Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had been carted off the field. (The Packers game back to win the game, however).
Perhaps the most salient fact about viewership is that last night’s rating was the highest for a Packers game in prime time since 2015.
After only one week, it’s too early to draw conclusions about what NFL viewership will be this year. The only things we can be sure of are that (1) the league’s viewership will continue to dwarf that of other sports and (2) Trump’s tweet was way premature.
The pre-game protests seem nearly to have blown over, though a police shooting, justified or not, might revive them. I understand why Trump wants to keep the issue alive. His stump speech, as he tours the country on behalf of Republican candidates, includes a reference to respect for our anthem and our flag.
The issue is a legitimate one. The kneeling protests, though a legitimate form of free expression, demonstrate an unjustified contempt for America that I believe is widely shared on the left. Any Democratic candidate who wants to distance herself from this expression of contempt just has to say the words. To my knowledge, not many have.
But the pleasure Trump seems to take from declining television ratings for the NFL is unseemly. And his latest statement on the subject looks to be wide of the mark factually.