Colin Kaepernick Is Not Causing The NFL Ratings Decline


Rasmussen Reports released a survey result, asserting Colin Kaepernick’s flag protests may make 32 percent of adults less likely to watch NFL games.

This survey met a collision of traditional media blindspots – operating understanding of scientific methodology and common sense understanding of human behavior in the wild – and the penchant for sexing headlines up a bit. Thus, the survey became a “shock poll” and an explanation for the NFL ratings decline. That interpretation is bunk.

Fortunately, Rasmussen Reports provided a helpful link to the wording of the survey question.

"1* Are you more likely or less likely to watch a National Football League game because of the growing number of Black Lives Matter protests by players on the field? Or do those protests have no impact on your viewing decisions?"

Wording matters. First, the question primes the respondent to react. It begins with a 29-word sentence, framing a dichotomy from the start, before a throw away sentence at the end about being unaffected.

Second, more inflammatory terminology changes the question for many respondents. It’s not the “national anthem” protests it is the “Black Lives Matter” protests, which are “growing.” That phrase has been a well-beaten bête noire for right wing media. Including it in the question has the same effect as it would in a Daily Caller or Drudge headline. It prompts conservatives to react negatively, and click.

This is similar to the “government should spend more on welfare” vs. “government should do more to help the poor” differential. A simple, yes/no question – “Have players’ national anthem protests affected your NFL viewing?” – probably would generate a different response.

Respondents were primed to have a reaction. Respondents were primed to have a negative reaction. Even with that priming, only 32 percent of adults said it made them less likely to watch the NFL, fewer than the strong majority reporting a neutral or positive effect.

Moreover, “adults” does not translate directly to “week-in, week-out NFL viewers.” That’s, being charitable, 10 percent of the adult population. So, even if the results are taken at face value, it’s not clear what relevance that sample has to the question at hand.

Donald Trump and politics are probably playing a role in the NFL viewership decline. The election has been must-see TV. Social media conversations have drifted there. Cable news networks are doing bonkers ratings. Those viewers are being siphoned from somewhere. Logic would suggest sports is a prominent “somewhere.”

Longterm trends such as cord-cutting, streaming, and the fragmentation of entertainment into niche markets could be accelerating faster than anticipated.

It has been unseasonably warm in populous areas of the country. I’m typing this from Michigan, where it was 80 degrees and sunny in October. I spent much of the day outside. I watched zero sports programming, and doing so is my job.

Though this is a tried-and-true cop out, the viewership decline is probably a confluence of long and short-term factors. Most seem far more plausible than Colin Kaepernick incensing millions of right-wing hashtagtivists to not watch football.