Recent headlines from around the country have made declarations such as, “Poll: National Anthem Protests Leading Cause For NFL Ratings Drop” from CBS in Boston, “Poll finds anthem protests hurting NFL ratings” via ABC News, and “Poll: Main reason for NFL ratings drop due to players kneeling during anthem” courtesy of CBS Sports. Ratings for NFL games are down about 12 percent overall versus last season. The drop is even more precipitous for the NFL high-profile prime time games. Thursday Night Football is down 18 percent, Sunday Night Football is down 19 percent and what is arguably the NFL’s spotlight game of the week, Monday Night Football, is down 24 percent. And the decline is increasing week over week. But those headlines are misleading, and in many cases probably false.
Closest to the truth is most likely the ABC News story which declares that anthem protests are hurting NFL ratings. This is probably true to some degree, but numerous factors are hurting NFL ratings. For its part the NFL says the protests are not hurting ratings and has no plans to curb the protests. This statement may be more public relations than outright truth, but it’s most likely true that the protests are not greatly harming ratings. It’s difficult to believe they’re even the leading cause of the decline. Certainly not the 56 percent figure being thrown out by the media.
So from where did this figure appear? A new, national public opinion poll of 841 people from Seton Hall and the Sharkey Institute seeks to identify reasons for the ratings decline and a summary of their findings declares that “56% of respondents cited players not standing for the anthem”. Except the poll did not ask respondents why they were not watching NFL games. The poll asked respondents why they thought NFL ratings were down. As the national anthem protests have received major news coverage for the past two months, this would be a leading cause in the minds of potential respondents, especially those who do not actively watch NFL games. The poll is not explicitly of NFL fans or those who regularly watch NFL games.
Also of potential concern is that this was a telephone survey of both landlines and cellphones. This has become a regular practice in public opinion surveys and is perfectly acceptable, but it does have potential pitfalls. Specifically, landline respondents and cellphone respondents are not the same. Cellphone respondents are typically younger, less wealthy and more racially diverse than landline respondents. Potential cellphone respondents are also less likely to participate in a public opinion survey. Therefore, it is possible, without knowing the demographics of the actual respondents, that the poll skews older, whiter and more wealthy. This is important as Yahoo! Sports/YouGov surveys have shown more support for the protests among minorities, a huge age gap between those under the age of 34 and older respondents, and that younger respondents are less likely to say the protests would affect their NFL viewing.
It is therefore possible that this Seton Hall/Shakey Institute poll is biased towards those who say the national anthem protests are resulting in lower ratings. It is impossible to know for sure without knowing the demographic breakdowns of the poll respondents as well as the full poll methodology, but it also seems impossible that the protests account for over 50 percent of the ratings decline. This would mean people care more about players not standing for the national anthem than care about criminal behavior among NFL players, the health of NFL players, the decline in the quality of NFL games and the terrible matchups in prime time.
This finding, if credible, indicates that all the NFL has to do to lose money is do the right thing for once.