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49ers-Cardinals TNF ratings down, but not it is not because of Colin Kaepernick’s protest

The 49ers-Cardinals ratings were down nearly 20 percent from last year’s Week 5 TNF game. Time to consider some of the reasons.

The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals squared off in an ugly affair this past Thursday. This is not breaking news given the number of injured players, and the way both teams have been playing. And it should surprise nobody to learn the ratings were down for the game.

One preliminary report has 49ers-Cardinals ratings down 18 percent from last year’s Week 5 TNF matchup between the 1-3 Houston Texans and 2-2 Indianapolis Colts. The 49ers-Cardinals game did an 8.8 overnight rating, while Texans-Colts did a 10.7. The prior year, the Vikings-Packers TNF game did a 10.4 overnight rating. According to the link above, this is the lowest TNF overnight rating since Bills-Browns did an 8.5 in 2013 with the game broadcast on NFL Network and the two team’s local affiliates. For this year’s game, the Orlando and West Palm Beach markets were not included due to the hurricane.

Ratings have been down almost across the board for primetime NFL games. People have tried to blame Colin Kaepernick’s protest for the drop in ratings. A survey was published five days ago that said 32 percent of American adults, “say they are less likely to watch an NFL game because of the growing number of Black Lives Matter protests by players on the field.”

People have been pointing to that survey to suggest the NFL is taking a hit because of Kaepernick and other players protesting. In reality, the NFL has numerous other issues impacting things. Cord-cutting is a real thing, and the advent of the Red Zone channel is likely impacting local market ratings on non-prime time games. Additionally, this year’s election season is unlike any we have seen, and sucking up a whole lot of oxygen.

But the survey linked above is problematic in its own right. Ty Duffy of The Big Lead put together a look at the survey, and particularly the prompt question:

1* Are you more likely or less likely to watch a National Football League game because of the growing number of Black Lives Matter protests by players on the field? Or do those protests have no impact on your viewing decisions?

As Duffy pointed out, this is like asking survey participants “should the government spend more on welfare” vs. “should the government do more to help the poor.” If the survey had asked whether or not “players’ national anthem protests” will impact their viewing habits. Asking about the surveys specifically in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement would be more likely to generate a negative response from certain voters than simply asking about the National Anthem protests without an additional descriptor. And of course, as Duffy pointed out, we don’t know what percentage of the respondents are more typical NFL fans, vs. casual or non-fans.

There are probably some people who are not watching the NFL, or not watching it regularly because of the protests. There are people seriously upset by this. But the NFL’s problems go beyond players protesting. Mark Cuban has talked about the league expanding too much, and potentially killing the golden goose. I think the NFL has a ways to go before this is a real problem, but it is something they have to have on their radar.

The current television contracts are set to expire in 2022. That is six more seasons after the current one. I think we’ll see plenty change over that time in terms of online streaming, and honestly, I think that will be an important way for the NFL to reverse this current trend.

This also comes conveniently enough at a time when the NFL is cracking down on its own teams use of social media. Earlier this week, Albert Breer reported that a memo went around discussing fines against teams for exceeding limits on video and moving content (GIFs). On Sunday, Darren Rovell offered more detail, and it seems even more intense than initially reported. Among other things, teams are going to be prohibited from the following:

  • Shooting video inside the stadium during the game and posting it on social media.
  • Using Facebook Live, Periscope or any other app to stream anything live within the stadium.
  • Taking highlights of what happens on the field and make it their own by using their own video or posting highlights from television directly to social media
  • Turning highlights into GIFs

Violations of these rules will result in fines of up to $25,000 for the first violation, up to $50,000 for the second violation, and and up to $100,000 for each additional violation. Rovell spoke with teams about this, and his sources said, “league executives want to make sure that content generated within the stadiums, including game highlights, are hosted by team websites so that the league maintains control of what is disseminated.”

This is not quite a direct impact on primetime TV ratings, but it is an example of how the NFL seemingly cuts off its nose to spite its face. Teams tweeting out videos and GIFs is not exactly traditional “grass roots” growth, but these can lead to things going viral and generating interest.

The NFL wants teams promoting content from official NFL accounts. They want to maintain control of everything, I imagine in part because they figure they are big enough and see no reason to give up control. The NFL has a stunning amount of arrogance about its product and keeping people watching. I think part of the reason they are doing this is because they actually see it as a way to counteract the downturn in ratings. And I think it shows the NFL’s glaring lack of understanding about the issues play with declining ratings.