By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The NFL has a ratings problem. The causes are many, and the leading cause is certainly up for debate. But that isn't stopping the NFL from denying that the problem has some controversial undercurrents - or that the problem exists in the first place.
Sunday Night Football between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants drew a 10.2 overnight rating as it mostly went up against the second presidential debate, according to Sports Media Watch. It's a steep drop from 13.1 in Week 5 of the 2015 season and the lowest overnight rating since Week 8 of the 2013 season.
The presidential debate, and the 2016 election season, are no doubt cutting into TV ratings for everyone, not just the NFL. But for an 11 percent overall drop through the first four weeks of 2016 that is likely to deepen after Week 5? Seems more like a convenient excuse.
Yet, here's the NFL sending an internal memo to all 32 teams reassuring them that the ratings are nothing to worry about. "There is no question that unprecedented interest in the Presidential election is impacting primetime ratings," reads the letter from NFL reps Brian Rolapp and Howard Katz. Curiously, the letter brings up the effect that the backlash over the growing national anthem protests among players is having on the ratings, which they dismissed.
"Finally, it is worth noting that we see no evidence that concern over player protests during the National Anthem is having any material impact on ratings. In fact, our own data shows that perception of the NFL and its players is actually up in 2016."
In all seriousness, the league itself may have no evidence, but I certainly do ... from the hundreds of fans who literally told me they stopped watching the NFL because they were sick of the anthem protests and the injection of politics into NFL games in the first place. Is the anthem protest backlash the only cause of the ratings decline? No. It is most certainly a confluence of a lot of different issues. But to simply deny that there is a segment of the ever-crucial 18-49 demographic that saw the anthem protests as a "last straw" kind of moment that made them turn the channel on the NFL's diminished on-field product is to demonstrate that you are out-of-touch with your own customers. A chunk of them, anyway.
The Sporting News reported last Thursday that the "Kaepernick Effect" is actually starting to hit the league in the wallets. The four major NFL broadcast networks - CBS, FOX, NBC, and ESPN - will pay about $5 billion per year for rights to broadcast games through 2021, yet sources told The Sporting News that those networks are actually starting to give some money back to advertisers with what are commonly known as "make-good" deals.
I feel like a broken record saying this, but a loss of ad revenue is one of the only ways to spring the NFL into action if you want to engender any kind of change. There's no question that the games themselves are less watchable than in recent seasons with the lack of star power, but that's no excuse for a Sunday Night Football game that featured two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning) and one of the league's most dynamic wide receivers who is also a lightning rod for controversy (Odell Beckham Jr.).
The presence of the election will inevitably cut into the numbers for every primetime program, but most NFL viewers tune in to escape politics - are they changing the channel for ... politics? And does this mean that the NFL is predicting a big ratings spike the Sunday after Election Day? If that doesn't happen, then what will they say?
The NFL allowed players to exercise their freedom of speech rights by protesting the national anthem, fans are in turn exercising their same rights by changing the channel, and yet the league continues to deny that the boycotts over the anthem protests are having any effect on the ratings. Is it the only cause of the 11 percent (and growing) decline? No. But it's one of the causes, a significant one, and one that could be permanent if the league continues to sweep the issue under the rug. This is not the first season that the NFL has had to deal with a watered-down product, alternatives to cable subscriptions, or even an election year.
The anthem protests are the only variable that did not exist before this season, yet the league is trying to tell you it's a non-factor? Even if the backlash is not a big-enough factor for an 11-percent drop in the NFL ratings, it's a factor. An escapist-entertainment league wouldn't let its own fans escape on Sundays, and it's costing them.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
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