Put your candlelight vigils and mournful eulogies for NFL on hold — rumors of the league’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
In 2017, the league made more than $8 billion in revenue for the first time in history, according to ESPN. That is a 4.9 percent increase from the previous year. While NFL ratings are down slightly from previous years, big television deals have more than made up the difference.
Yes, despite President Trump’s incessant proclamations that the NFL is on life support because a handful of NFL players occasionally take a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism, the most popular sports league in the United States is thriving financially.
We know this thanks to the Green Bay Packers, the only publicly-owned NFL team and therefore the only team required to disclose its financial books annually. This year’s disclosure revealed that not only is the league doing well financially, the Packers are as well, even though it represents the league’s smallest market and didn’t make the playoffs last season.
“Packers president Mark Murphy said any effects from the NFL’s tough season, including the national anthem controversy, did not manifest in the books,” ESPN reported.
The NFL is now thinking about a new idea – keeping teams in the Locker Room during the National Anthem next season. That’s almost as bad as kneeling! When will the highly paid Commissioner finally get tough and smart? This issue is killing your league!…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 22, 2017
Trump has been regularly attacking the NFL since well before he entered politics. In 2014, Trump attempted to buy the Buffalo Bills but was outbid. He’s been particularly vocal on Twitter and at his rallies condemning black NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem. As far back as the 1980s, Trump was eager to compete directly with the NFL.
As recently as last week, at a rally in Montana, Trump said the NFL ratings were down “20 percent” last season because of “the flag.”
This might shock you, but neither of those things are true. NFL ratings were only down 9.7 percent in 2017, and as we’ve noted before, the viewership decline has nothing to do with patriotism or politics. If people only watched sports that honored the flag and flaunted their conservative politics, NASCAR would be soaring in popularity. In fact, NASCAR saw a 20 percent decline in viewership — twice the decline as the NFL.
Plus, as Timothy Burke of Deadspin pointed out earlier this month, when you compare the NFL’s ratings decline to the overall declines across the television landscape, the NFL’s ratings actually over-performed: broadcast networks as a whole lost 16 percent of their viewers, and cable networks lost 11 percent.
Bottom line: people still love watching football. Sunday Night Football averaged 18.2 million viewers in 2017, making it the top show in the 18-49 demographic for a record seventh straight year. Thursday Night Football — infamous for absolutely awful games that even the most die-hard NFL fan struggles to sit through — is still in the top 10 for viewers. That’s out of all television programs throughout the entire year of 2017.
Yet despite all of this, the NFL cannot get out of its own way. The league is weirdly terrified of Trump’s Twitter tantrums and subsequent backlash from his base, and as a result, willingly takes the bait and blames black players who are protesting police brutality for its problems that don’t actually exist.
In May, the NFL adopted a new rule requiring all players who are on the sidelines to stand during the national anthem, but allowing players to stay in the locker room during the song if they so choose. If a player comes onto the field for the anthem and doesn’t stand, the team will incur a fine.
The team owners hoped that this would be a way to appease both sides, but instead it appears to have made things worse. The NFL Player’s Association officially filed a grievance challenging the rule last week, and Trump is still using it as a lightning-rod issue for his racist supporters.
“Isn’t that worse than not standing?” Trump said at the same rally in Montana where he lied about the NFL’s ratings decline, referring to the option to remain off the field during the anthem. “That doesn’t play. I actually think in many ways it’s worse.”
Honestly, it’s a small miracle the NFL isn’t in financial trouble — not because of players protesting racial injustices, but because of cowardly owners who throw their players under the bus out of fear of a tweet.