So it’s been repeated ad-nauseum by many that NFL attendance and ratings are down because of protests, and there have even been suggestions by some that the protests have a negative effect on team performance. Is there actually any truth to any of these? Originally, this is all this post was going to be about, but I decided to expand it to also discuss other things that pose more serious threats to the popularity, and thus the future, of the NFL.
While the NFL protests are the popular issue to criticize the League on at the moment, it’s facing other threats to its popularity that have the potential to cause much larger problems for the League long term, including competition and the inherent danger of the sport.
In this post, I’ll be going through them in order from least to most serious.
I wanted to look back at data from this season and look to see if there ended up being any correlation between how active teams were in the NFL anthem protests and that team’s attendance or record.
Using weekly posts from ESPN, I tabulated how many individual players on each team protested at some point this season. This includes kneeling, sitting, a couple players locking arms or raising a fist during the anthem. It does not include players who show support by putting a hand on the shoulder of a protesting player. Teams who had full-team demonstrations of some sort (locking arms, t-shirts, kneeling together just before anthem) in weeks other than Week 3, which was the week President Trump said protesting players should lose their jobs, were counted as one additional player to make sure they registered in my tally.
It should be noted that some numbers are estimates because the writers of the ESPN posts could not be sure exactly how many players were included or did not name some of the players protesting but did note there were other players.
Is There any Correlation Between How Many Players on a Team Protested This Season and Attendance?
This is a question I saw suggested frequently. If you follow anyone on social media who had particularly strong negative feelings about the player protests, you likely saw pictures of empty stadiums that were supposed to prove this point, but were actually taken during the preseason, halftime, or long before the game actually started. So is there any connection? The short answer is not really.
For any plot like this you have to address the outliers. It’s not surprising that the 49ers top the list of number of players who protested considering this movement began there and players on the team may feel particularly strongly about the way the entire Colin Kaepernick situation has been handled. Yet, people bought tickets to their games anyway. Meanwhile, I have no explanation for the Browns. People don’t go to Browns games because the Browns are terrible, so I think it’s hard to draw conclusions about how Browns fans feel about anything other than the talent of the team when looking at attendance numbers.
Outside of those two, there doesn’t seem to be much correlation at all. The other teams who could be considered “active” in the protest movement have varying attendance statistics, and teams with few protesters obviously would have less of a reaction from fans. Then there’s the Rams, who simply couldn’t fill the LA Coliseum unless they were hosting the Super Bowl.
It’s a fair point to make that San Francisco fans likely care less about the protests than perhaps fans of other teams, but with few other data points to compare that to, it’s hard to draw any conclusions about any teams when it comes to protests’ impact on game attendance.
Did Teams With More Protesting Players Do Worse?
A less common take than the first one is that the protests were a distraction and would have a negative impact on the team.
Again, Cleveland and San Francisco stick out. Now, I think we can all agree that the reasons both of those teams struggled has nothing to do with protesters. San Francisco didn’t lose a game after they brought in Jimmy Garappolo. The Browns, as we’ve gone over, just stink. Again, the other more involved teams had mixed results.
One potential interesting point is that elite teams, inlcuding the two teams playing in the Super Bowl this weekend, tended to have few protesting players. This could be completely circumstantial, but if I was to credit anything it would be that great coaches tend to be great at man-management and would thus be more effective at trying to have a united message as a team rather than players using the Anthem as an opportunity to express individual opinions. The idea of “no one is bigger than the team” tends to be an attitude that pervades successful teams, and the Patriots are the primary example.
I don’t think you can argue that teams played better because they weren’t distracted by protests, but there may be an argument for the idea that better teams are less likely to have players do something that would set them apart from their teammates.
Finally for this section: How Does Winning Correlate to Attendance?
Ignoring the Rams, NFL teams fill their stadiums whether they win or not. Winning doesn’t even guarantee you better attendance. If losing isn’t keeping fans away, I think the idea that a relatively short-term event that will be confined to only a handful of players going forward (barring any increased prodding by the President or NFL owners) will significantly damage interest in the League in the long term is a bit absurd.
This past week, Vince McMahon announced he will be reviving the XFL. Now, in theory, I think there is potential for a competitor for the NFL to succeed. A recent video from YouTuber Urinating Tree (yes, I know that name is ridiculous but if you’re a fan of sports-related satire, he produces some great content) sums up this scenario pretty well. Basically, focus on cities where the NFL doesn’t have teams, simplify the rules to avoid needless constant confusion (what the hell is a catch?), and pitch itself as a springboard for players who either aren’t yet NFL ready or as an alternative to playing in college. While this makes sense, it would be very counter to the spectacle that the original XFL was supposed to be. Most of that original idea wouldn’t work anymore because it was largely based on making the game more exciting by making it more dangerous. McMahon also said the XFL will not have some of its former gimmicks, like nicknames on jerseys or the jump-ball coin toss (a glorified version of the Oklahoma drill). So what will the XFL be? My guess is it will try to both pitch itself to fans who don’t have a team to root for locally (starting with St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland I would assume) and to fans who feel the NFL has become too soft by changing rules in the name of player safety or see the protests as reason to abandon the league. The problem is, that’s not enough to make the XFL financially successful. Best chance for survival is to try to partner with the NFL as a sort of supplemental league. They won’t be able to beat them, so they should join them.
Indirect Competition and the Other Football
The idea that the NFL is becoming less popular is not a new one, having been the subject of much debate over the past few years. However, the NFL is still the most popular thing on TV (except for the Walking Dead??) and consistently draws most of the largest television audiences for individual events. However, people only have so much time to devote to watching sports, so a potential concern isn’t so much that fans are choosing to watch less football but rather choosing to watch more of other sports.
According to Gallup, football overtook baseball as America’s favorite sport to watch back in the mid 1960s and has been on top ever since. In Gallup’s polling, football peaked as 43% of Americans’ favorite sport in 2006 but has slowly been declining since, down to 37% in 2017. Meanwhile, baseball and basketball have also seen slight losses. The main culprit for all of this? Soccer and the 18-34 demographic.
Among 18-34 year olds, soccer has passed baseball and caught basketball in terms of popularity. Now, I’m not going to forecast the end of the MLB, NBA or NFL because of the growing popularity of soccer, this poll is just measuring the favorite sport of responders; but it’s a much longer-term trend and threat than players protesting or the XFL.
Perhaps most important, is that those 18-34 year olds will be less likely to have their children play football (we’ll get to the why in a minute), and a change in the distribution of athletic talent could have serious consequences for all sports in the future.
You can check out Gallup’s polling data for yourself here: http://news.gallup.com/poll/224864/football-americans-favorite-sport-watch.aspx
Player Safety and C.T.E.
Without question, the greatest threat long term to the NFL is it’s emerging crisis regarding concussions and player safety in general. It has now been almost six years since Junior Seau committed suicide and left a note behind detailing his mental struggles and requesting research be done on his brain. It was no surprise when it was found he had C.T.E., the confirmation of which began a new inquiry into the consequences of a life spent playing football. The public profile of the disease expanded greatly with the movie Concussion which profiled Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who originally discovered the disease in a number of former Pittsburgh Steelers players in the early 2000s. Sony Pictures altered the original script to make the film less critical of the League and Roger Goodell, but it was easy to connect the dots that the NFL knew more than they were letting on. The most recent blow to the sport regarding C.T.E. was a Boston University study of the brains of 111 former players whose family members had expressed concern that they may have had the disease. Of the 111 studied brains, C.T.E. was found in 110 of them. It was also found that Aaron Hernandez had C.T.E. before he committed suicide while in prison after being convicted of murder.
All of this is scary stuff, particularly for current players and for parents. I don’t think the NFL will die any time in the foreseeable future, but it may change fundamentally over the next generation as fewer kids play football. The combination of parents who like other sports more than football and the legitimate safety concerns has the potential to turn the NFL into a league where the only players are those who see it as the only way out of a small town, bad neighborhood or poverty.
In the short term, the NFL is trying to tweak the rules to discourage hits to the head, but that can only do so much. While eliminating the big hits to the head may be achievable, it’s impossible to eliminate the small blows players, particularly lineman, sustain on almost every play that have been shown over time to contribute to the development of C.T.E.. One promising idea is to design position-specific helmets that seek to address specific concerns for protecting different players, but only time will tell if such ideas are true solutions or merely band aids on the problem.
All in all, the NFL has a few things to worry about, some much more serious than others, but for now it’s still the most popular sport in the country by a mile and made over $13 billion last year. It’s impossible to imagine the American sports landscape without the NFL both because of how ingrained the sport is in the lives of so many and because of how dominant the League continues to be. As fan I’m interested to see how the NFL takes on its challenges; I’ll be watching and rooting as long as it’s here, and disappointed but understanding if someday it’s gone.