HOUSTON — It’s an election year, silly.
That wasn’t the entire company line, but the impact of the dramatic presidential election cycle was certainly a prevailing sentiment as NFL owners gathered Tuesday for their quarterly meeting and assessed the league's unusual and precipitous dip in TV ratings.
Assuming the results aren’t, well, rigged, NFL games — the undisputed king of U.S. sports viewing — were down 11% for the first six weeks of the season when compared to a similar point last year.
Blame it on Hillary vs. Donald? Or a sign of deeper problems for the NFL?
“It’s a very muddied water right now because you’ve got obviously the debates going on and you have the Donald Trump show,” Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s a lot of commotion right now. It’s pretty hard to figure out right now what’s real and what’s not.”
The first debate, which ran opposite of a Falcons-New Orleans Saints Monday Night Football matchup in late September, drew a record 84 million viewers. The second debate, coinciding with a New York Giants-Green Bay Packers Sunday night prime-time clash, had 69 million viewers.
“Obviously, the debates have had a big impact,” Houston Texans owner Robert McNair told USA TODAY Sports.
But the debates represent just the biggest of several suspected factors. Tom Brady served four games in Deflategate jail. Peyton Manning retired. The younger generation is increasingly watching games or clips streamed to mobile devices. Too many penalties. Unappealing prime-time matchups. Too many prime-time matchups.
Then there are the protests. The national anthem protests by players, ignited by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s mission to raise awareness about police brutality and social justice inequalities that victimize African Americans, has been a polarizing debate of its own on the NFL’s grand stage. Though the protests — from players like Kaepernick taking a knee, to players raising a fist, to players and coaches locking arms in unity — end when the games begin, they generate much discussion before and after the contests.
Still, the impact of the protests illustrates the power of the NFL’s reach.
“I think it’s the wrong venue,” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay told USA TODAY Sports. “It hasn’t been a positive thing. What we all have to be aware of as players, owners, PR people, equipment managers, is when the lights go on we are entertainment. We are being paid to put on a show. There are other places to express yourself.”
Irsay’s view is undoubtedly shared by other owners who frown on the protests drawing attention from their product. Given the intense backlash against Kaepernick, it’s plausible that people have turned away to protest the protests.
“People come to the game because they want to get away from what’s happening in their everyday lives,” McNair said. “When you bring those types of things into the scene, yeah, it will turn some people off. But the main thing we try to do is to say, ‘We recognize your concern. Let’s do something about it.’ "
It’s striking that the anthem protests, connected to other factors, are viewed as a variable that seemingly runs deeper than other recent crises. The NFL took tremendous PR hits with its domestic violence issues and concerns about the effects of concussions. But those serious issues seemingly didn’t have a major effect on the ratings.
Last year, NFL games represented 63 of the top 100 highest-rated TV shows. And though NFL viewership was up 27% over the previous 25 years, according to league figures, viewership for all prime-time viewing was down 36%, as TV-watching habits have changed.
It is way premature to suggest that the NFL is in trouble of losing its position as the nation’s most popular sport. Although Monday night’s New York Jets-Arizona Cardinals game drew a 6.2 overnight rating that was down 35% from a New York Giants-Philadelphia Eagles Monday nighter the previous year, it still dwarfed the 3.4 rating of the American League Championship Series game between the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays. But you can believe that the league is taking the declining numbers seriously.
What if the lost viewers from this season never come back?
“That should be the NFL’s biggest fear,” consultant Marc Ganis of Sportscorp, Ltd., told USA TODAY Sports, adding that it took years for Major League Baseball to recover after a labor impasse wiped out the playoffs and the World Series in 1994.
“The ratings thing, we can’t ignore,” cautioned Blank, co-founder of The Home Depot.
He knows all about the impact of researching the fan base for clues.
“What’s going up? Where is the softness? How do you respond to that?” Blank said. “It’s no different from my days running The Home Depot, when we had markets where we didn’t get the response. We had to figure out why aren’t we getting customers in our stores here. It didn’t happen very often, but sometimes it happens.”
Now the NFL is similarly challenged to figure out how to best present its product.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell