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No, NFL viewership wasn't down because of anthem protests

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The J.D. Power 2017 Fan Experience Survey suggests there were many factors, including election coverage and the league’s handling of domestic violence issues.

NFL: Super Bowl 50-Commissioner Roger Goodell Press Conference Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

NFL viewership was down last season. The league and media outlets offered a number of reasons, including the league’s handling of domestic violence issues and competition from a contentious election cycle. But nobody ever nailed down a specific reason for the drop. The J.D. Power 2017 Fan Experience Survey suggests national anthem protests were the leading factor, but there’s some important context that comes with that.

Despite an earlier report from ESPN that buried the lede a bit on the effect the protests had on ratings, only 3 percent of respondents to the online survey indicated that the protests were the primary reason they watched fewer NFL games in 2016.

The study surveyed 9,200 sports fans who had attended at least one NFL, NBA, or NHL game last season. These fans were asked if their viewing of NFL games on television decreased, increased, or stayed the same in 2016.

Viewing habits didn’t change for 61 percent of the NFL fans polled. Twenty-nine percent said they watched more football in 2016, and just 10 percent said they watched fewer games.

Factoring in the rest of the respondents, 62 percent of the overall group watched the same amount, 27 percent watched more, and 12 percent watched fewer NFL games in 2016.

The reasons fans chose to watch less football ranged from players’ national anthem protests, to the league’s failures in handling domestic violence issues with players, to cutting the cord and getting rid of traditional cable. Participants were allowed to select more than one reason.

Why NFL viewership declined

Reason Percentage # of people Percentage of total respondents
Reason Percentage # of people Percentage of total respondents
National anthem protests 26 percent 287 3 percent
Domestic violence 24 percent 265 2.8 percent
Game delays 24 percent 265 2.8 percent
Excessive commercials 20 percent 221 2 percent
Election coverage 16 percent 177 1.9 percent
Cord-cutting 5 percent 55 > 1 percent
Data courtesy of J.D. Power

The anthem protests did lead the pack. Among the respondents who said they watched less football, 30 percent of the NFL fans and 26 percent of all respondents gave that as a primary reason.

But let’s break that down into actual concrete numbers.

Of the 9,200 who responded, 1,104 said they watched fewer NFL games than they have in the past. Of those 1,104 people, 287 said that national anthem protests were the main reason. That’s just 3 percent of the survey’s respondents.

The demographics of the survey participants, which will provide even more insight into the responses, will be released with the full survey results in August. The survey was conducted entirely online, and respondents who said they had attended at least one professional sporting event in the previous year were selected to participate.

What may not shock you is that investment in watching games fluctuated by market based on how good the local teams were last season. For example, in the Chicago market, 22 percent of fans said they watched less football last year. I watched a number of Bears games during that 3-13 season, and I don’t blame them.

In Boston, on the other hand, only 6 percent of those who responded said they watched less football. That number may have been higher toward the beginning of the season, when Tom Brady was serving his Deflategate suspension. But the Patriots, of course, had yet another great year, culminating in that ridiculous comeback overtime win in Super Bowl LI. What’s not to love? Unless you’re a Falcons fan, that is.

The markets that saw the biggest increases in NFL viewing aren’t surprising either. Dallas pulled in more NFL viewers at the highest rate, with 35 percent indicating that they watched more NFL games than the previous season. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, and the team’s 13-3 finish, doubtlessly had something to do with that.

Southern California, which welcomed the Rams back after a 21-year span in Los Angeles without an NFL team, also saw a 25 percent increase in viewership. Last year’s survey only covered the Los Angeles market, but Greg Truex, J.D. Power’s Senior Director of U.S. Service Industries, told SB Nation that the Chargers and Padres weren’t thrilled about being left out, so they expanded the market for this year’s study.

The survey also measured game attendance. Overall, 17 percent of fans said they attended fewer games last year, with 65 percent saying their attendance stayed the same, and 18 percent saying they went to more games than in the past.

The study showed an overall trend of respondents watching more football, but ratings were down 9 percent in the regular season and 6 percent in the playoffs last year. The election may have been a factor early in the season, as ratings did rebound slightly after that. But that’s when playoff implications begin to take shape, which could also be a reason for more people tuning in.

Even Super Bowl LI, one of the best games in recent memory — a blown 25-point lead, a historic comeback, and the first overtime in Super Bowl history — had the lowest overnight ratings of the past three years.

J.D. Power’s full 11-market survey results will be released on Aug. 16.