Ratings were down on Fox, where Atlanta was taking on Detroit, and on NBC, where Washington battled Oakland.
But over at CBS, people were tuning in for Houston and New England — regardless of President Donald Trump’s call to boycott NFL games.
Such is the murky picture that’s emerged following Trump’s string of weekend tweets lambasting NFL players for kneeling in protest during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At a game Monday night between Dallas and Arizona, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined his team’s players in kneeling before the national anthem was performed, then standing during the song itself.
“Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger,” he also said.
The president’s criticism further complicates the league’s struggle to reverse a slump in viewership that has confounded broadcasters and team owners. Already, fans were switching off games because of too-frequent penalties and commercial breaks, head injuries, and the player protests. Now the leader of the country is telling citizens directly to stop watching football.
Over the weekend, Trump said owners should fire players who protested. The practice of kneeling during the national anthem was started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a protest against police brutality and mistreatment of black Americans.
Debate over the national anthem was “a side issue” that’s likely to boost ratings for sports talks shows or pre-game shows, but not affect whether people watch the actual games, said Lee Berke, president of consultant LHB Sports Entertainment & Media Inc.
“People are going to tune in for the match-ups, the stars and hometown teams,” Berke said. “I don’t see any political controversy causing people to walk away.”
Fox said both of its pre-game shows had higher viewership.
Investors don’t appear worried. Shares of CBS Corp. rose 2.1 percent to $60.50 and 21st Century Fox Inc. gained 1 percent to $27.15 at 3:10 p.m. in New York. Comcast Corp., owner of NBC, declined less than 1 percent to $38.
On Monday, the president tweeted the hashtag #StandForOurAnthem and saying the “issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our country, flag and national anthem. NFL must respect this!”
The NBC Sunday night game drew an 11.6 overnight rating, a decline of about 10 percent from the Chicago-Dallas Sunday night match-up in Week 3 last year. CBS said its Sunday games drew an 11.9 overnight rating, a 4 percent increase from a year earlier.
The mixed results could be a sign that competitive match-ups rather than political controversy had a larger impact on whether people tune in. CBS’s games included Green Bay’s close-fought 27-24 overtime win over Cincinnati while NBC’s Sunday night game featured Washington with a 21-0 lead over Oakland with less than five minutes into the third quarter.
Overall, ratings for Sunday’s NFL matches were down about 4 percent, according to John Ourand, a reporter at Sports Business Journal. They’re likely to be up overall for the week after Monday night’s game, he said.
TV networks took the unusual step of airing the national anthems live on Sunday. Owners, broadcasters and league officials criticized Trump over the weekend, and more players than ever kneeled during renditions of the song. Some NFL players also locked arms or held up fists in solidarity. Several teams stayed in the locker room during the anthem.
“We respect individuals’ rights to express their views, even if they are not ones we share,” said Ford Motor Co., a major sponsor of the NFL, on Monday. “That’s part of what makes America great.”
The NFL said Monday it hadn’t seen any business impact — positive or negative — in the aftermath of the president’s comments.
For now, the NFL’s broadcast partners are not seeing the same audience boost that other media outlets, from CNN to the New York Times, witnessed after Trump criticized them. That may be partly due to the fact the NFL isn’t doing investigative journalism about the Trump administration or because of the diverse political makeup of NFL fans.
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