NFL Ratings Aren't Reacting to Taking a Knee As Trump Wants

Donald Trump wants everyone to believe that player protests over the national anthem are negatively affecting the NFL's popularity, hitting the league in its most sensitive area of television ratings. "Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!" Trump tweeted on September 24. As a former—some might say current—television personality, Trump knows that falling ratings lead to a decline in advertising revenue for companies like CBS, NBC and Fox, the NFL's major national television broadcasters. The controversy could be bad news for television networks, if vast numbers of viewers decide to tune out all at once.

Trump isn't right about "bad ratings," though. Not exactly. In fact, he may be completely wrong in one sense. NFL pregame ratings on CBS and Fox were "significantly higher" on Sunday in comparison with previous weekends, the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday, when purely football-related topics were discussed. The NFL Today on CBS scored its highest rating since 2010, the newspaper reported, but viewership of the live games themselves still depended on the quality of the action and the teams involved. CBS benefited from an overtime thriller between the Packers and Cincinnati Bengals, while NBC and Fox showed less appealing games that contributed to an overall dip in viewership compared to the same weekend in 2016. The Redskins-Raiders game on NBC's Sunday Night Football was down 11 percent on the equivalent game from Week Three in 2016, Forbes reported.

Still, the dip in audience is hardly "way down" as Trump claimed again on September 24 in a separate tweet, on a weekend when he told a rally in Alabama that NFL owners should consider "firing" any player that kneels for the national anthem in solidarity with black America. Forbes notes that the rise of internet streaming likely accounts for the NFL's declining cable ratings, compounded more recently by the spate of hurricanes that have hit the south and east coasts. Trump acknowledged the popularity of the weekend's pregame shows in a tweet posted on Tuesday morning. "Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!" He wrote.

It seems likely, and logical, that Trump's vast social media presence—his personal Twitter account has around 39.3 million followers—is helping to bring a new audience to a league and sport electrified by the president's very public opposition. Austin Karp, an editor at the respected SportsBusiness Daily, tweeted on Monday: "Fans wanted to see NFL talking heads react to Trump."

Fans yesterday wanted to see NFL talking heads react to Trump. Fox 11am NFL show, +30%. Fox NFL Sunday, +9%. CBS' The NFL Today, +33%.

— Austin Karp (@AustinKarp) September 25, 2017

The president wants the American public to turn off the NFL. But he may have enlivened a whole new audience to the league.