Are NFL Fans Listening to Trump? Week 7 Crowds Had Big Holes Again

The National Football League can survive, and even prosper, if falling live gates are counterbalanced by record national television audiences. It is the TV deals, after all, that bring in the bulk of the revenue for the league and its franchises; the TV deals, primarily, that swelled the NFL's revenue to $13 billion in 2015, a figure projected to rise for 2016 and 2017. Sure, big gaps in big stadiums don't look great, and there will always be a debate about how a sparse live attendance colors the perception of the remote TV audience. But as long as the networks are happy, then so, pretty much, is the NFL.

If live gates and TV ratings start heading south, then the NFL may have a problem. A CBS News piece, published Friday before the main slate of Week 7 games, may have led to a slight raising of the collective heart rate in the office of Commissioner Roger Goodell. Fox Sports' Sunday Night Football games are down on ratings by seven percent on the same point a year ago, the article reports. CBS's Sunday-night games are down 17 percent, and NBC's for the same day by 4 percent. Only ESPN, the sole U.S.-based broadcaster of Monday Night Football, has seen ratings rise from 2016: up by 6 percent through six weeks of the 2017 season. CBS News quotes financial analyst Tuna Amobi as saying there could be "significant financial implications" for the NFL's broadcast partners should ratings keep falling. To wit: potential for a drop in advertising revenue, eventually leading to reduced demand, and value, for the next set of television contracts.

And live attendances are struggling, too—at least for some teams. CBS Sports—perhaps through gritted teeth—pointed out some yawning gaps in stadiums for Sunday night's games. "Any camera angle that panned across the upper deck in any number of stadiums Sundays confirmed that fact [a drop in live gates]," the report stated. Bloomberg noted that the "struggling" teams suffered on Sunday, with 59,061 turning up to FirstEnergy Stadium to watch an ugly game between the still-winless Cleveland Browns and the Tennessee Titans.

The stark problems with the L.A. Rams and L.A. Chargers' attendances have already been documented this season. The Chargers couldn't fill the 27,000-capacity StubHub Center for their first regular-season game in L.A. back in September, leading to a memorable quote from Philip Rivers to ESPN. "I thought there was great energy in the stadium. Obviously, the loudest roar came at the end, after the missed field goal. That's where you really got to see how many Dolphins fans there were. I heard the roar before I saw the official's signal. I wasn't sure which roar it was."

It would be easy for right-wing commentators and owners, and President Donald Trump—much less so for Goodell, of course—to point fingers at this and last season's protests during and around the national anthem as a major reason for an apparent dual decline. Too easy, surely. Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner, seemed to allude to that after the Cowboys beat the 49ers at Levi's Stadium on Sunday—a 40-10 victory where a large cohort of traveling Cowboys fans could not make up for San Francisco's apathy over its struggling football team. "There's no question that the league is suffering negative things from these protests," Jones said in quotes reported by Bloomberg. "I'm first and foremost a proponent of making the league strong and make us have as many people watching the game as we can. Let's not do it in a way that tears down the strength of the NFL."

But that CBS Sports piece raises a far more plausible reason as to why fans may be staying away from live games and their television sets. Teams that would not so long ago have drawn heavy interest from neutrals are now lacking their star attractions—the Packers, for instance, with Aaron Rodgers, or the Arizona Cardinals who likely lost Carson Palmer for eight weeks on Sunday with a broken arm. Even the Dolphins, with the limited attraction of Jay Cutler at quarterback, had to sub in Matt Moore. And they remain on the hunt for a playoff spot—symptomatic, perhaps, of the league's mediocrity in 2017. 49ers fans, to return to them, must endure a quarterback duel between C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer.

Surely that theory doesn't explain the situation 100 percent clearly. For instance, the Indianapolis Colts had 63,104 people attend Lucas Oil Stadium for a brutal shutout against the Jaguars on Sunday evening, when Jacoby Brissett once again deputized for Andrew Luck. And the situation in Los Angeles defies easy convention or explanation—the Rams look like legitimate contenders in the NFC West, they have a young, exciting running back-quarterback combination in Todd Gurley and Jared Goff—and still, Los Angeles doesn't seem interested in professional football.

It's a situation the NFL is going to have to solve going forward. The league remains a behemoth, but even giants can find themselves cut down upon a confluence of circumstances.