Photo by: Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA
They may be “just games,” but professional sports actually serve an important function in our society, which more often brings us together than drives us apart. They provide cause for hope and enthusiasm, motivate us when we’re down on our luck with stories of hard work, heroism, and mastery, and provide us with great opportunities for entertainment and for spending time with friends (and a fast way to make new ones). In our increasingly politically polarized society, they’ve become particularly important as a way that people can come together, even people on opposite sides of the aisle, to celebrate and bond over something real.
At least, that was mostly the case until the national anthem protests began in the NFL.
Regardless of how you feel about the “take a knee” movement launched by Colin Kaepernick, the facts are that it’s led to negative PR and lowered ratings for the NFL because many fans count on sports to ESCAPE the political division that today marks virtually every other sphere of American society. According to Nielsen data, during the 2016-2017 season, NFL viewership fell 9.7% across all networks, with an average football game being watched by 1.6 million fewer people as compared to the previous season. According to data from Nielsen, Google Trends, and other sources cited by ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, NFL fans as a whole have a fairly balanced profile of political orientations, meaning that every team has liberal and conservative viewers. Conservatives especially have taken issue with the anthem protests, meaning that every team which has had players “take a knee” has likely alienated (or at least disgruntled) part of its fan base, and conservative news commentators have even called for “boycotts” of the NFL, which may partially explain the ratings decline. Once again, we point this out not to award liberals or conservatives, but to highlight that given the broad political range of NFL audience members, any politically polarizing activity occurring within the League’s context was likely to lead to PR trouble. And it has.
Of course, there are a myriad of other reasons that can help account for the ratings decline. Among them are slow and lengthy games, popular teams with bad win-loss records, and a younger demographic that is increasingly less likely to buy cable packages. Combined with the League’s overly aggressive approach to branding and legal action against “Super Bowl” tie-in advertisers, it’s no wonder that even the most popular professional sport has lately fallen into a PR rut. We’ll be watching to see if the rebooted XFL coming online in 2020 has studied and learned – it certainly shows promise, with founder Vince McMahon asserting that no social or political posturing will be allowed and that all players must maintain a clean criminal record (another NFL Achilles heel). McMahon has declared that XFL will “give the game of football back to fans.” It’s gotten a good start so far by letting fans know it’s about their needs first, the disregarded fact at the root of virtually all the NFL’s current PR woes. To see how this plays out, we’ll all have to stay tuned. How would you help the NFL get back to PR “first down”?