Huge NFL audiences show Donald Trump’s predictions about impact of kneeling protests were wrong

The league did see a ratings slump in 2016 and 2017, but NFL executives say there were other causes besides national anthem protests

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Tuesday 25 January 2022 20:47 GMT
Donald Trump suggest protesting NFL players 'should be out of the country'
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Donald Trump has long argued that players making political protests like kneeling to bring attention to racial injustice would tank the NFL’s ratings, but a thrilling round of playoff games over the weekend seems to have once again proven this prediction untrue.

Mr Trump frequently made headlines for attacking activist-minded players like former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his sponsor Nike.

“Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!” the former president wrote in one typical tweet, from 2018.

That was far from the case over the weekend, or throughout a highly rated football season this year.

Patrick Mahones led the Kansas City Chiefs to an overtime win against the Buffalo Bills, in what’s being called one of the best playoff games in history. The contest drew a peak audience of more than 51 million viewers, the most highly watched divisional playoff game since 2017.

The 49ers upset over the Green Bay Packers also drew large crowds of viewers, helping the NFL average about 37 million viewers for this round of the playoffs, a 21 per cent increase over last year.

Ratings did slump in 2016 and 2017, the height of the national anthem kneeling controversy, but NFL executives have argued there were other factors aside from these protests that caused the dip. Factors like an election year, the rise of must-watch cable news, and more granular issues like scheduling and marquee players being injured or suspended all dragged on ratings.

As some Americans begin to think about other things, and as the pandemic restrictions in many parts of the country fade, the country is back to football it seems. It’s one of the few big franchise entertainment properties that’s been able to keep boosting viewership, even as other network TV shows lose audience to streaming services.

“We never really saw a ton of evidence that our viewership was materially impacted when we were more in the political news,” NFL chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp told the Los Angeles Times in September, as the league enjoyed a start with ratings increases of single-to-double digits across various networks.

“I think it’s a return to lighter things to watch. There has been a lot of heavy news and topics for people to consume on television in the past couple of years. They are migrating to things that are much more unifying and football is one of those things.”

Despite allowing players like Kaepernick to be ravaged by Mr Trump, and once adopting a no-kneeling policy for the national anthem in 2018, the NFL has since come around to supporting player activism.

“I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in 2020, after a group of high-profile Black players released a video highlighting the personal impact of racism on them and the importance of being able to speak out. “Without Black players, there would be no National Football League, and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff.”

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