The final numbers for the NFL 2017 season are in, and they are as bad as league execs feared. The overall ratings plummeted a stunning 9.7% from the previous season, which had suffered a similarly precipitous 8% drop-off from the year before. The average viewership per game in 2017 declined by 1.6 million viewers down to 14.9 million from 16.5 million in 2016. The rapid decline in viewers comes amid a convergence of issues plaguing the league, most conspicuously the turmoil caused by the divisive #TakeAKnee national anthem protests and the acceleration of cable "cord-cutting."
As Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch highlights, a breakdown of each of the key time slots over the last three years shows a consistent, troubling trend, with only Thursday Night Football managing not to drop total viewership in one of the years:
NBC’s Sunday Night Football
2017: 18.175 million
2016: 20.323 million
2015: 22.522 million
ESPN’s Monday Night Football
2017: 10.757 million
2016: 11.390 million
2015: 12.896 million
Thursday Night Football (NBC/CBS/NFL Network)
2017: 10.937 million
2016: 12.438 million
2015: 12.425 million
In 2016, the league blamed the presidential election for some of the decline in its numbers. This year, Donald Trump has been partly blamed once again for the ratings collapse. In its reports on Nielsen's final numbers for the NFL 2017 regular season, ABC News notes that many believe the anthem protests — which ratcheted up dramatically after President Trump called on league executives to fire or suspend the "son of a b****" players who refused to honor the flag — played a significant role in the league's declining viewership and game attendance.
"This year, the NFL was challenged with fans upset at players protesting during the national anthem, an action that led to a league faceoff with President Donald Trump," ABC reports. "Other factors cited include the dilution of the product through Thursday Night Football, which was broadcast on the NFL Network, CBS, NBC and Amazon Prime in 2017."
Other possible contributors to the drop in numbers include the NFL RedZone, which might be hurting daytime numbers, and, as Fox CEO James Murdoch and CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus maintain, the broadcast of too many games.
The NFL's viewership decline largely mirrors that of other cable programs, suggesting that cord-cutting is the most significant factor. "Through Week 13 of the 2017–18 TV season, the Big Four nets [ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox] were collectively averaging a meager 6.3 million total viewers per night, which marks a shortfall of around 650,000 viewers when compared to the year-ago period," Deitsch notes. Nielsen also found that despite the declines, the NFL accounted for 20 of the 30 highest-rated shows in 2017.
While the #TakeAKnee fallout was likely far less influential than changing viewer habits, surveys over the last year have consistently shown that a sizable percentage of fans have been turned off by the divisive protests, one survey showing a quarter of fans listing the disrespect of the flag as the number one reason they're tuning out the league. The data has been clear enough to league executives that they have been working in concert to find ways to channel the "activism" off of the field, including donating large sums of money to activist efforts.
The anthem protests officially started in the 2016 preseason, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick told reporters, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. ... There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
Though only a few players joined Kaepernick in protesting the flag that season, the movement exploded in 2017 after Trump called on owners to fire players who kneeled. "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b**** off the field right now. Out. He's fired! He's fired!'" said Trump during a rally in Huntsville, Alabama in late September.