On August 14 and again on August 20, Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the National Anthem as it played before the first two preseason games of the 2016 National Football League season, a silent act of protest aimed at police brutality and the oppression of people of color. No one left the games in disgust, and Donald Trump did not tweet at him to stand up. He had simply gone unnoticed.
It wasn’t until August 26 that his abstention hit the national consciousness. Jennifer Lee Chan, then of SB Nation, tweeted out a photo that would light the kindling of a coming firestorm. The photo showed, in the bottom center, a tiny Kaepernick seated on the sidelines by the Gatorade table.
Sports radio and debate shows argued over the function of the protest, rarely the merits. Fans lit up the airwaves, Twitter, Facebook, and the phones in front offices. The furor startled the owners and leagues; the issues around game-induced concussions and domestic violence committed by players hadn’t led to such fan commotion, but Kaepernick’s protest and the many players he inspired to protest had compelled fans to threaten boycotts. Giants co-owner John Mara said in March 2017, paraphrasing the letters his team had received: “‘If any of your players ever do that, we are never coming to another Giants game.’ It wasn't one or two letters. It was a lot. It's an emotional, emotional issue for a lot of people, more so than any other issue I've run into.”
His anxiety soon seemed unwarranted. Only a small portion of 1,500 active NFL players kneeled or sat during the anthem, and after the NFL season ended, the issue died down. Kaepernick became a free agent, so the discourse around the protest centered on him instead of specific teams, coaches, or the league. According to Google Trends, interest in the anthem protest had all but flatlined. When the NFL resumed in August 2017, only a few players — Marshawn Lynch, Michael Bennett, and Cliff Avril, to name a few — protested during the anthem. That is, until President Donald Trump weighed in on September 22 during a campaign stop for Republican Alabama Senatorial candidate Luther Strange.
If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
After Trump called for protesting players to be fired, search interest in the anthem protest tripled its previous highest point from the year prior. What began as a protest of police brutality against people of color morphed into an ambiguous protest against Donald Trump. Entire teams kneeled or skipped the anthem all together; owners got on the field with their players and linked arms, even though some had previously donated to Trump’s candidacy.
Public opinion polling seemed to suggest the NFL was in trouble for allowing this spectacle to go unpunished. One poll conducted by the Remington Research Group found that 64 percent of 1,633 respondents believed NFL players should “stand and be respectful during the national anthem.” A CNN poll reported that 24 percent of Americans planned to boycott the league. Sentiment around the NFL among Trump voters flipped almost immediately according to Morning Consult; prior to Trump’s comments, the NFL enjoyed a +14 point favorability among Trump voters, but after the comments and the weekend of protests, Trump voters now held a -17 point unfavorable view.
However, it’s now clear that this alleged backlash has not led to measurable action. While fans have loudly decried the NFL in opinion polls, they are not spending less time or money on football. The 2017 season has seen 6.17 million fans buy tickets through the first six weeks, according to Pro-Football-Reference. That’s slightly lower than the 6.38 million fans who bought tickets in 2016, but a large portion of that gap is explained by the Chargers moving from San Diego to Los Angeles before the 2017 season. Qualcomm Stadium, the previous home of the Chargers sat 70,000 people, but now they play at StubHub Center with a capacity of only 27,000. The gap is even smaller when you compare 2017 to 2015, when 6.22 million fans bought tickets in the same period.
In fact, the number of tickets sold has actually increased since Trump’s outburst. In the three weeks leading up to and including the one in which Trump gave his speech, 71,500 fans bought tickets. In the three weeks after Trump’s outburst, 73,700 fans bought tickets. Even John Mara’s New York Giants have not had a ticket sales dip after three players kneeled on September 24. To be fair, these numbers would not capture irate fans who did not use their tickets or left the game early because of the protests. However, common sense dictates that most fans will not spend time and money only to leave five minutes later, unless they’re Vice President Mike Pence.
How about ratings? Nielsen reported that NFL ratings were down 7.5 percent through the first six weeks of the 2017 season. But the numbers from Sports Media Watch suggest that Week 1 was a large outlier, with 15 percent less viewership. Was that due to feverish anger at players and coaches who chose to make a political statement before the games, even before Trump took notice? Probably not. There is an alternative explanation: Many TVs were turned to news and weather stations as Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida and the Southeast. Since then, ratings climbed back to normal. Trump’s favorite channel to criticize, ESPN, actually reported a 6 percent increase in viewership for its Monday Night Football program compared to 2016.
This is essentially the same pattern that played out when the protests first started in the 2016 season, when news reports suggested anti-NFL sentiment led viewers to tune out. However, Philip Bump of The Washington Post showed that the impact of the anthem protests on viewership was wildly overblown; more fans actually said they increased their viewership of football, and of the people who said they were tuning in less, factors like news reports of domestic abuse by players may have had a more significant impact on viewer behavior. Fox Sports executive Mike Mulvihill wrote that the viewership dip in the first half of the 2016 season was all but erased in the second half, suggesting that wall-to-wall election coverage may have been what was distracting viewers.
Overall, there isn’t enough public data to conclusively say that the continued protests or Trump’s proclamations are affecting viewership this season. Sports fans may disapprove of their team’s players kneeling, but no one watches football for the anthem, and breaking with the tradition of Sundays filled with football is a tough ask. Some networks have decided to obviate the issue by not airing the anthem.
If the NFL is concerned about declining viewership, other trends pose a more significant existential threat. Anthem protests are a short-term blip, but the growing backlash against football fueled by tragic stories of how players’ lives are ruined by brain injuries is a long term trend with much bigger potential consequences for the sport. Fewer kids are signing up to play; participation in tackle and touch football dropped 24 percent from 2009 to 2014, with parents citing the dangers of head injuries in their decision to keep their children out of football. If the NFL is to have a long-term future, its worry should not be with players sitting down during the anthem, but future players sitting out entirely.