National anthem protests during the 2016 season played a role in the declined NFL ratings, says the president of one major sports network.
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus feels confident making the statement after his network conducted internal research to determine what contributed to the drop, he told reporters at the NFL’s annual Media Day in New York City on Wednesday. Overall, networks reportedly saw an eight percent drop in NFL ratings between the 2015 and 2016 season.
“We did research and it was relatively proprietary research, to be honest with you.But I think if you look at some of the reasons why NFL viewership was down last year, that is the reason, that is a reason that’s mentioned by a fair amount of viewers,” McManus said of players’ anthem protests, via Sports Illustrated.
“It is something they don’t find attractive or they don’t find compelling in coverage of the football game. How big a factor it was? I don’t really know. But it was one of the factors that I think perhaps led to the slight decreased in ratings last year.”
The controversial protests started with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who first began kneeling during the anthem during the 2016 preseason to raise awareness about police brutality against black people.
As NFL ratings began to drop, some pointed at the players’ public displays of politics. Others, like Fox Sports’ executive vice president of research Mike Mulvihill, disagree.
Mulvihill reasons the total number of viewers that watched any part of the 2016 regular season grew by five million, and thus the Kaepernick-inspired protests become a moot point.
The increase “is in conflict with the idea of a boycott,” Mulvihill told Sports Business Daily on Monday. “If there was really a meaningful boycott going on, you’d see reach go down. And we didn’t.”
Mulvihill did acknowledge that fans may have strong opinions over the protests, but there is no evidence that they caused the ratings to drop.
While McManus believes the protest did indeed affect the ratings, he was adamant that they were far from the only factors. Instead, McManus said he believes the biggest factor in the drop was the news coverage of the election, especially during primetime.
“That was an important factor,” McManus said. “Then there was the retirement of Peyton Manning, the fact that Tom Brady wasn’t playing the first four weeks, J.J. Watt not playing, I think those storylines were a factor. There were also some less than compelling games, quite frankly. The Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in  years. They were all factors that contributed.”
Nevertheless, McManus believes there is no reason to panic: The NFL is “still the most attractive property in all of television by a huge margin.”
That might be one of the reasons McManus and CBS want to continue their coverage of the protests, despite the feedback from viewers.
“Just because it might not be popular with the viewer at home doesn’t mean we’re not going to cover it,” McManus said. “There’s a lot of things you do on television that may not be popular, but they’re important to do from a journalistic standpoint. If we think it’s important journalistically and we think it’s part of the story, I don’t want to tell them to do it or not to do it. I think that is up to the person producing the broadcast themselves. They have good enough senses of storytelling and journalism to make that call.”