The NY Post reports CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus feels confident making the statement after his network conducted internal research to determine what contributed to the drop, he told reporters at the NFL’s annual Media Day in New York City on Wednesday. Overall, networks reportedly saw an eight percent drop in NFL ratings between the 2015 and 2016 season.
“We did research and it was relatively proprietary research, to be honest with you. But I think if you look at some of the reasons why NFL viewership was down last year, that is the reason, that is a reason that’s mentioned by a fair amount of viewers,” McManus said of players’ anthem protests, via Sports Illustrated.
“It is something they don’t find attractive or they don’t find compelling in coverage of the football game. How big a factor it was? I don’t really know. But it was one of the factors that I think perhaps led to the slight decreased in ratings last year.”
The controversial protests started with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who first began kneeling during the anthem during the 2016 preseason to raise awareness about police brutality against black people.
As NFL ratings began to drop, some pointed at the players’ public displays of politics. Others, like Fox Sports’ executive vice president of research Mike Mulvihill, disagree.
Earlier this month, he gave a presentation at a Fox Sports seminar filled with talent producers and directors who work on NFL games. He laid out three factors that affected NFL ratings last year and three factors that didn’t. The three factors that affected NFL ratings last year:
1. The election
Before the election — during weeks 1-9 last season (Sept. 11-Nov. 6) — cable news networks averaged 6.29 million viewers in prime time, which was up 82 percent from the previous year. After the election — during weeks 10-17 (Nov. 13-Jan. 1), they were up 18 percent (4.17 million viewers). Conversely, NFL games were down 13 percent in total viewing from weeks 1-9 and essentially flat in weeks 10-17.
Even if news networks continue their current pace, NFL games should be OK, Mulvihill said.
2. The absence of stars
The NFL started last season with Peyton Manning retired, Tom Brady suspended and Tony Romo injured. Plus, the returning NFC championship game contenders — Carolina and Arizona — were not big national draws.
This season, the networks have to deal with Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, but the Cowboys are expected to remain a big TV draw. Other big draws like New England, Pittsburgh and Green Bay are entering the season at full strength, barring preseason injuries. For Mulvihill, that should help the networks get a good start.
3. The expansion of football windows
Network executives have complained about the added NFL windows for a long time — like the expansion of “Thursday Night Football” and the added London games. They believe the added windows diluted the ratings. The NFL has 110 windows during the course of a season. In 1994, when Fox started carrying NFL games, that figure was at 92.
“Over the course of our participation in the league, we’ve had a 20 percent expansion in the number of game windows,” Mulvihill said. “When you increase the number of windows, you increase total consumption, but the average viewership goes down.”