NASCAR provides the ultimate proof that the NFL’s rating decline isn’t because of politics

You can't have it both ways.

Brad Keselowski celebrates driving with an American flag after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, July 2, 2016, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Brad Keselowski celebrates driving with an American flag after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, July 2, 2016, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last year, you’ve probably heard that our nation is currently undergoing a monumental crisis. No, not the White House one — I’m talking about the fact that after years of being a seemingly invincible ratings juggernaut, NFL ratings are on the decline. I know, I know, it’s hard to process, but it’s true.

While people can cherry-pick ratings from certain games to prove whatever point they want to prove, overall, it’s likely that the NFL will finish this year with fewer viewers than it had last year. Last year, NFL viewership was down from the previous year. It’s an undeniable trend.

Now, you could say that the NFL’s ratings decline merely mirrors a decline in viewership across television audiences at-large. However, that’s not the narrative-of-choice. Many have blamed the NFL’s “liberal politics” — in other words, their refusal to completely ban all players from taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice — as the reason for the ratings decline.

But that reason doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, especially when compared with the fortunes of other sports — namely, the most culturally conservative sport, NASCAR.

Heading into its 2017 championship race at Homestead this weekend, NASCAR is amidst an alarming ratings decline years in the making. Fox Sports airs the first half of the NASCAR season, and this year, their ratings were down 17 percent from last year. Last week, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Texas was the lowest rated and least-watched in the 12-year history of the race, according to Jayski.com.

Comparatively, Through Week 7 of this season, NFL ratings were down an average of five percent.

NASCAR’s decline — which extends to its attendance numbers — is happening despite the fact that NASCAR CEO Brian France and other drivers formally endorsed Donald Trump for President during the Republican primary in 2016, and despite the fact that no NASCAR driver or crew member has taken a knee during the national anthem — in fact, earlier this year, NASCAR legend and team owner Richard Petty threatened to fire anyone who protests during the national anthem.

Trump, who has praised NASCAR for the fact that its drivers stand during the anthem, has tweeted incessantly about the NFL’s rating decline. He has, however, offered no explanation for the downward trend of NASCAR’s viewership.

NASCAR has long been viewed as one of the most outwardly political sports — and there’s been no question about what side of the partisan fence it sits on.

But while there have been outlets (including ThinkProgress) who have pointed out that minority, female, and LGBTQ fans might not be comfortable with the sport given its conservative leanings, directly correlating NASCAR’s rating decline with its politics is an oversimplification — if not a complete fabrication — of the truth.

The truth is, NASCAR and the NFL’s ratings decline are related — just not because of partisan politics. Both sports have been impacted by the changing television landscape — viewership is down pretty much across the board, mainly due to the endless cable and streaming options available to consumers in today’s landscape. And both NASCAR and the NFL have seen a plethora of rule changes and safety concerns over the past decade impact their entertainment value.

If you’re still not convinced, look no further than the NBA, which many expect to see an increase in viewership this season. And while the league’s outspokenness about progressive causes has been refreshing to its left-leaning fans, it’s hardly the reason why the league is in great shape right now. The NBA is gaining fans because the game is more fun than ever, with an abundance of fresh, new stars, entertaining storylines, competitive games, and charismatic personalities.

Look, sports and politics are inextricably linked, and always will be. But at the end of the day, entertainment value is the top viewership draw.