How will protests, pandemic impact NFL ratings?

Throughout the entire pandemic, sports fans, sports broadcasters and advertisers alike have repeated the same mantra: The NFL’s gotta come back. The NFL’s gotta come back. With so much emotional, spiritual and literal capital tied up in the NFL season, it’s no wonder everyone is looking to the league as a way to mitigate, in some small way, the financial and psychological effects of the coronavirus pandemic. With kickoff less than three weeks away, can the NFL shoulder that burden?

Let’s start with the obvious. The NFL is a ratings behemoth unlike anything in American broadcast history. Of the top 30 most-watched broadcasts ever, Super Bowls account for 29 of them, led by Patriots-Seahawks in February 2015. (The series finale of M*A*S*H still ranks 9th overall.) 

Moreover, the NFL owns every week of its season. Ever since 2011, Sunday Night Football has been the top-ranked show in America, despite “only” airing 17 times a year. Last year, the NFL claimed 47 of the top 50 broadcasts on TV, with an average of 16.5 million viewers per game.

Yes, ratings in and of themselves are primarily a way for networks to set advertising rates, but they’re also a meaningful barometer for what’s piquing our interest on a week-to-week basis. The Cowboys, Steelers, Patriots and Tom Brady are always going to draw eyeballs, no matter who they’re playing. Likewise, there’s a reason “Titans vs. Jaguars on Thursday night” is NFL scheduling shorthand for a ratings graveyard. 

But what’s ahead for the NFL as it prepares to begin a season unlike any other? Will America tune in, or have the wearying effects of the pandemic crushed the football-watching spirit of many fans? How will largely empty stadiums impact the broadcast for everyone at home? Will the NFL’s apparent lean into politics turn off a significant segment of viewers? 

With few, if any, fans in the stands, this year’s NFL will look very different. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Expert opinions on all these questions vary, but there’s one consensus: Great games will produce monumental ratings, pandemic or no pandemic, fans or no fans. 

“There are so many cautionary clauses in this conversation,” says Jay Rosenstein, former vice president of programming at CBS Sports. “Will they play the whole season? Will COVID allow key players to play? Will there be a ‘Friday surprise’ [from testing results]?”

“I anticipate ratings will be higher, largely because a lot of people who are used to going to games will still want football,” says Dr. Patrick Rishe, director of the Sports Business program at Washington University in St. Louis. “You’ve got 60,000 to 70,000 people per city, per market, who won’t be able to go to the games.” 

Dr. Jon Lewis, who runs Sports Media Watch, feels differently.

“It’s probably smarter to err on the side of assuming ratings will be lower,” Lewis counters. “It’s an election year, it’s been a very disrupted year, and there’s a lot of different competition.”

This fall will see the unseasonable broadcast of two golf majors (the Masters and the U.S. Open) and two playoffs (NBA and NHL); none will defeat the NFL, but combined, they could take a bite out of the league’s viewership.

Rosenstein points to a single game as a bellwether for the season: Week 1’s Sunday afternoon matchup between Drew BreesNew Orleans Saints and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady’s new home. 

“That’s going to set the tone for the whole year,” he says. “It’s a quarterback league, not only in terms of MVP, but in terms of team identification and fan identification with those teams. A lot of NFL ratings are dependent on Tom Brady and Tampa Bay, [Patrick] Mahomes and Kansas City, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott. For those reasons, I would feel positive (about ratings) rather than negative.” 

The lesson of the NBA

For a cautionary tale, the NFL need look no further than the NBA, which is suffering through cratering ratings. The NBA’s viewership is down an astounding 45 percent from the 2011-12 season. Despite high hopes from NBA Twitter, sports media and of course the league itself, the NBA’s post-lockdown ratings have plummeted even after four-plus months off of America’s TV screens. 

“For the country, it will be respite from enormous difficulties people are dealing with in their lives right now,” commissioner Adam Silver said as the NBA bubble prepared to return. And on its face, it seemed like a reasonable argument. The NBA would go with an all-killer, no-filler lineup, ditching the eight teams who had already played themselves out of the playoffs and focusing only on a stretch-run sprint right on through to the Finals. Plus, one of the most popular shows of quarantine was “The Last Dance.” Everything was positioned for an NBA ratings coronation, right?

Not quite. Instead, we’ve seen — or not seen, as the case may be — what The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss dubbed “this ratings disaster of a season.” You can point fingers to every direction on the compass to explain the ratings drop: a lack of relatable superstars; the ready availability of dunks, buzzer-beaters and other must-watch plays on social media; the NBA playing at an unaccustomed time of year. 

“It’s hard when you’re out of season,” Rosenstein says. “When you’re playing the NHL or NBA in the late summer, you have odd broadcast windows. People are doing other things. There’s just a different feel to it. This isn’t scientific, but my gut tells me that when you don’t play when you’re supposed to, that makes a difference.” 

The NFL will sidestep some of that. It’s operating on schedule, on the prescribed day of the week and expected time. (You’d imagine that the NFL’s ratings would suffer if, say, the league started running games at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday, but probably not by much.) The scarcity of product, not just in terms of legally permitted social media clips but also literal frequency of scheduled games, works in the NFL’s favor as well. 

But in the wake of the summer’s protests, both the NBA and the NFL are facing a new ratings threat-slash-opportunity: a vast increase of political speech in their sports. 

What impact will protests have on NFL ratings?

According to a 2013 study, the NFL’s fans tend to fall in the center-right quadrant of the political spectrum, more conservative than the NBA but to the left of hockey, NASCAR, college football and golf fans. That’s a study from seven years ago, which may as well be the 1800s given the political upheaval in America over the last half-decade, but it’s still a reasonable starting point for the discussion: Will the NFL’s fans tune out over protests? 

“That’s the center of the ratings bingo card,” Lewis says. “At this point, there’s been so much messaging on this issue that if you’re so upset [about social justice messages] that you’d stop watching sports — you’re [already] not watching sports anymore.”

While the NFL has permitted political speech, it hasn’t yet incorporated politics into its own messaging. It’s the difference between allowing players to kneel and painting Black Lives Matter on the playing surface, as the NBA has done. The NFL has done all it can to keep political activism confined to the sidelines, before and after the game. 

The searing waves of criticism that accompanied Colin Kaepernick’s decision to protest during the 2016 season — and a nearly 10 percent dip in ratings in 2017 — were enough to scare the NFL’s leadership into fearful, kneejerk reactions. Now, longtime industry observers agree: the ratings decline had very little to do with politics, and everything to do with matchups and on-field play.

“I never thought [the ratings decline] was a big deal in 2017, and I still don’t think it’s a big deal,” Rosenstein says. “The universe [of viewers] is so large. There might be some who can’t stand watching, but if you’re a Kansas City fan, even if Mahomes takes a knee, you’re still going to watch. It was more of a popular theory than a real factor.” 

Worth remembering: the 2017 season was a terrible one for matchups and marquee players. Peyton Manning had left the league, and Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson hadn’t yet arrived. Blue-chip franchises like Dallas, San Francisco, Chicago, Green Bay, Seattle and the New York Giants all missed the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham, J.J. Watt and Carson Wentz all went down with major injuries. Both Jacksonville and Tennessee made the playoffs. 

“Had [Mahomes and Jackson] been on the scene in 2017 at the same time as the protests, people would have been enthralled,” Rishe says. “Ratings would have gone up.” He points to data indicating that even in 2017, secondary ticket prices were rising, meaning demand was still going up to see games in person — an unexpected result if a boycott was having a significant effect.

We’re on the cusp of a season when multiple high-profile players and coaches, including Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, have announced their intentions to kneel during the national anthem. Even commissioner Roger Goodell is embracing the idea of social justice messaging, at least on a superficial level. In an election year, there’s no sticking to sports anymore, not even in the NFL. 

“For the NFL, there are so many other reasons ratings will be down this year,” Lewis says. “I don’t think it makes much sense to pinpoint [protests] as the reason.” 

Rishe believes that a potential negative effect on ratings “is more likely to happen this year because of a heightened state [of social awareness], especially with the election in November … I suspect if it happens it will be negligible. I’m still a big believer that regardless of what political party you’re in, if these protests trouble you, a lot of people still want to see their football. They’ll turn away, and then come back when the game’s started.” 

How will this year’s broadcasts look different?

No sideline reporters. No shots of cheerleaders or screaming fans. No sweeping shots of stadiums. No cutaways to owners, with announcers fawningly referring to them as “Mister.” This  year’s NFL will have a decidedly leaner look. 

“It’s not going to look that different on the field, but it’s going to be scaled down,” Lewis says. “[Sports broadcast pioneer] Roone Arledge used to say that too many broadcasts were ‘like looking at the Grand Canyon through a peephole.’ He wanted to take people on a guided tour of the game. But you won’t be able to do that now, and I do think that will make it less enjoyable of a TV show.” 

Expect many more sideline shots, but don’t expect the NFL to grant the same kind of access that, say, the XFL (remember that?) got in its brief second life. Coaches are willing to bend only so far, which means that networks will have to get innovative to avoid showing huge swaths of dispiriting empty seats.

“The producers and executives have been looking at this for a long time now,” Rosenstein says. “They’ll have new [broadcast] techniques, more audio, better camera angles from different places now that there won’t be fans in the stands.”

That fanless experience could take a toll. “Once you get past the thrill of having these events back, some of them are just not that enjoyable to watch without fans in the stands, especially for outdoor sports,” Lewis says. “The silence is so much heavier.” 

“Sports technology is only going to accelerate even more as companies realize there’s an opportunity to make the fan experience better, whether televised or, eventually, in person,” Rishe says. “Sports is like any business: you have to have good customer engagement. If you can’t have fans [in the stands], the next-best way to engage them is the best possible viewing experience.” 

Even with the changes, even with the protests, the best argument in favor of football is still football itself. Good matchups and star players will carry the day … or not. 

“For the most part, what’s moving people’s decision to watch is the entertainment value of the game,” Lewis says. “Is the game on at a convenient time? Is this a game I want to watch? The thing that moves ratings most is entertainment value.” 

“It’s hard to make a prediction, but with all those opening big college football games cancelled, that’s going to fuel [ratings] a bit,” Rosenstein says. “We haven’t seen any football since the Super Bowl. Fans are going to be primed for the NFL.”

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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