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Are NFL player protests significantly hurting TV ratings and the NFL brand?

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[Probably yes, but it's too early to tell for sure.]

It is clear the NFL experienced declines in viewership in 2016 and year to date 2017 when compared to 2015 data. This time period is representative the start of the NFL player National Anthem protests which became more prevalent during the 2017 season when President Trump commented on them publicly. One would be hard pressed to not hear the cries on radio, television, social media and even in person from those claiming to be done watching professional football. Statements like this alone show the protests have had at least some impact on ratings and there is a clear correlation between the decline in viewership and the advent of the player protests. Determining the extent or significance of these protests and their direct cause to the drop in ratings is much more difficult. Data has shown that general prime time television viewership has also declined over the same period and customers have increasingly turned to streaming services for their viewing needs. NFL sponsors and advertisers have commented publicly on both sides of the politicized issue. Some have been highly critical and pulled out ads while others have released statements to show support for the players. It is early at this stage to determine if these statements and company action will have a lasting effect on earnings or future sponsorship.

Origin and Prevalence

The NFL player protests during the US National anthem originated with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick at the start of the 2016 pre-season on August 14 2016. Kaepernick sat on the bench and refused to stand during the national anthem as a silent protest to bring awareness to racially-motivated police brutality.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

During the pre-season, not much media attention was given towards the protest, however, after a conversation with teammate Eric Reid and retired Green Beret and former NFL player, Nate Boyer, it was decided that kneeling would be better than sitting as it is more respectful to our nation's veterans, and represents a flag at half mast ( New York Times). As the regular season carried on more and more professional athletes in the NFL as well other sports joined Kaepernick and Reid in similar silent protests which gained more media attention. On September 24 2017 over two hundred athletes had joined in the protest after President Donald Trump publicly suggested that the owners fire any protesting players because the protests and recent rule changes by the NFL are hurting the NFL's ratings.

Could this claim possibly be true? Are the NFL's TV ratings and viewership significantly down as a result of these protests? The short answer is yes, amoung other factors. Back in November 2016, before the president even made these comments, Samford University published an article regarding a study that shows that NFL players kneeling during the national anthem is significantly hurting viewership. However, there are opposing points of view.

Issues and Analysis

NFL sponsors have responded to the decline in ratings, some being more open about their position with the protests than others. Following President Trump's rally in Alabama calling on the NFL to fire players that protest the national anthem, Under Armour tweeted that it "stands by our athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America. Later on in the day Under Armour deleted the tweet, and tweeted a more patriotic statement that read "Under Armour stands for the flag and by our athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America. Nike also released a statement following Trump's rally in Alabama, but unlike it's competitor Nike took to one side stating that it "supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society". Unlike Nike and Under Armour, Anheuser-Busch is rethinking their NFL sponsorship. In the wake of increasing national anthem protests Anheauser-Busch took to the public to make the decision of pulling Bud Light as the official NFL beer. The company started a hotline to hear the publics opinion on the issue, and what the company should do. This last Friday the Anheauser-Busch company reported that due to the high volume of calls the hotline got temporarily shut down, but regained full capacity on Sunday. Other sponsors with the NFL however are taking the protests lightly, in fact some sponsors blame the NFL as a whole for their poor sales this season. Papa John's CEO John Schnatter criticized the NFL for it's "inability to resolve the controversy surrounding the anthem protests issue", which he then claimed that led to the company's decrease in sales. Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnership at NBCU, said several companies are threatening to pull their advertisements from the NFL, if the channel continues to cover the protests. Yaccarino said she believes that the airing of the protests have led to the declining ratings this year.

The National Football League isn't the only thing getting backlash from sponsors. Players are also feeling the heat of choosing to protest the national anthem. One player that seems to be getting national attention is Broncos linebacker Von Miller. Miller recently decided to participate in the national anthem protests, but that decision came with a heavy price. Colorado car dealership Phil Long Ford decided to stop airing advertisements with Miller in them. They have not fired Miller from being apart of the Phil Long Ford endorsement deal, but they have considered whether or not to renew the players contract. Von Miller was not the only Broncos player that felt the sting of endorsement deals going sour. Brandon Marshall also a Broncos linebacker lost two endorsement deals last year after deciding to protest the national anthem. Marshall lost the endorsement of CenturyLink, and Air Academy Credit Union. Marshall however didn't take the loss of his endorsements as a negative, instead the linebacker stated "It's not always going to be popular. Somebody is going to want to make an example out of you. But that shouldn't deter you from doing what you feel is right." Big name companies aren't the only ones that are pulling their advertisements from the NFL. An Ohio Gubernatorial hopeful Jim Renacci said, that he was going to pull his $20,000 advertisement from the Cincinnati vs. Cleveland game, and instead spend the money on a non-NFL televised event. Renacci isn't the only political figure to voice his opinion on the protests. Louisiana House Represenitive Kenny Havard seized his opportunity to speak out about the protests. The New Orleans Saints took a knee during the national anthem of their game against the Carolina Panthers during their Sunday game. Havard spoke out the following Monday about the protests, and threatened to redirect state funds away from the New Orlenes Saints, if the protests continue.

The ultimate issue that people are having with these protests are they are disrespectful. People take the national anthem very seriously and is a tradition at all sports events for a very long time and people don't like to break tradition. Also we have had people in the military fight for our rights and safety for a long time and many people have lost their lives for our freedom so many have felt disrespected by this protest. NFL owners are contemplating making standing for the national anthem mandatory after President Trump started making statements against the taking a knee. Team owners, who previously joined the take a knee movement and locked arms with their players as an act of unity against racial injustice, appear ready to reverse that stance. Instead, they seemed eager to please Trump who has upped the risk in the sidelines protests, suggesting taxing teams to penalize the NFL over the issue. The NFL owners need to recognize that the psychological safety and wellbeing of their players is just as important to their economic interests as federal tax incentives. Without that recognition, there won't be any progress.


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