PolitiFact: Trump overstates NFL ratings, attendance declines


The president said one reason for the slump is public reaction to players’ kneeling during the national anthem.

Trump seems to be overstating rating declines, and we found little evidence of a political motivation for them.

The numbers for 2017 so far are inconclusive.

Advertising Age media reporter Anthony Crupi told us he estimated a decline of around 9 percent in ratings since last year, although the only window to face a significant decline was for 1 p.m. regional games.

But we only have full data for the first two weeks of the season — the first of which was likely affected by Hurricane Irma — making the data set too small to draw any conclusions, according to Sports Media Watch.

Average attendance for 2017 is also down by 5 percent, while gross attendance is off 8 percent from 2016.

Trump might be referring to 2016, a year when the NFL saw a significant drop in viewership, although average game attendance increased by 3 percent from 2015 to 2016.

According to ESPN, NFL game broadcasters saw an average year-to-year drop in television viewership last season of 8 percent. Fox saw the lowest ratings since 2008 and ESPN since 2005. But that excluded Thursday Night Football games and alternate viewing platforms.

A new Nielsen study measuring audiences in bars, restaurants, gyms and other out-of-home venues indicated NFL viewership nearly matched 2015’s numbers. However, they didn’t compute out-of-home numbers for 2015.

It’s still a modest decline, according to Sports Media Watch, because the NFL’s ratings are usually so strong. Football is the most popular televised sports event in the United States.

“I think it’s really important to note the NFL is not declining while other leagues are increasing,” said the editor in chief of Sports Media Watch, who uses the single name Paulsen. “NASCAR ratings are in the cellar right now. The NBA had some of its lowest rated games ever on network television last year … It’s an industry-wide phenomenon and the NFL isn’t immune to it anymore.”

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung pointed to a Seton Hall Sports Poll that found that 56 percent of 841 respondents cited players not standing for the national anthem as a reason for last year’s ratings drop.

But as CNBC pointed out, that poll asked why other people — rather than the respondents — aren’t watching football. About half those polled said they follow sports either “not closely” or “not at all,” but former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling was widely covered by the media.

similar J.D. Power survey Cheung cited also reported national anthem protests as the main reason NFL fans watched fewer games last season. “However, those respondents reflect only 3 percent of the full, nationwide sample,” the researchers wrote.

Various pundits criticized the survey results as negligible, pointing out that for every one person turned off by protests, 10 NFL fans tuned in.

Like the Seton Hall survey, the reasons for tuning out were offered as a list for respondents to choose from, so they could provide multiple answers.

Paulsen said that NFL had similar declines in the ‘80s, ‘90s and the first half of the 2000s.

“It’s only now that people are deciding it’s a political issue, that people are really focusing on it. There’s any number of reasons to believe that what’s happening right now is not necessarily political,” Paulsen said, including a loss of interest among younger viewers.

Our ruling

Ratings were down 8 percent in 2016, but experts said the drop was modest and in line with general ratings for the sports industry. Ratings in 2017 so far suggest a similar year-on-year drop, but experts say it’s too early to tell, and external factors like Hurricane Irma may help explain the drop.

As for political motivation, there’s little evidence to suggest people are boycotting the NFL. Most professional sports franchises are experiencing declines in popularity.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Homepage