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Manuela Tobias
By Manuela Tobias September 24, 2017

Trump's Mostly False claim that NFL ratings are 'way down'

President Donald Trump blamed low National Football League ratings and attendance on unpatriotic players.

"NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.," Trump tweeted on Sept. 24, 2017.

His Sunday morning tweet referred to NFL players -- most notably former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick -- who kneel during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality. Trump had made a similar claim during a campaign rally on the Friday before for Sen. Luther Strange in Huntsville, Ala.

Trump also urged the NFL fire or suspend those players.

"If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!" Trump tweeted.

We wanted to know if ratings or attendance of NFL games were indeed "way down." We previously rated a similar claim Trump made about CNN’s ratings Pants on Fire.

Once again, Trump seems to be overstating rating declines, and we found little evidence of their political motivation.

By the numbers

We’ll begin by saying that 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 the 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 impacted by Hurricane Irma — making the data set too small to draw any conclusions according to Paulsen, editor in chief of Sports Media Watch. (Paulsen’s professional name is simply Paulsen.)

Average attendance for 2017 thus far 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-on-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, which Paulsen said likely would lower the percentage, and alternate viewing platforms.

"A variety of factors made the comparison versus last year skewed, including streaming on Twitter and a new partner, NBC," ESPN reported.

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A new Nielsen study measuring audiences in bars, restaurants, gyms and other out-of-home venues showed that NFL viewership nearly matched 2015’s numbers. However, they didn’t compute out-of-home numbers for 2015, suggesting there might still be some discrepancy.

It’s still a modest decline, according to Paulsen, because the NFL’s ratings are usually so strong — the NFL is the most popular televised sports event in the United States. He also pointed out that isolating the NFL made little sense.

"I think it’s really important to note the NFL is not declining while other leagues are increasing," Paulsen said. "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."

Why the drop?

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, the poll asked why other people — rather than respondents — aren't watching football. About half the people polled said they either follow sports "not closely" or "not at all," but coverage of Kaepernick’s kneeling was widely covered by the media.

A similar J.D. Power survey Cheung cited also reported national anthem protests as the main reason NFL fans watched less games last season.

"Among the 12 percent who watch less (sports), 26 percent of them say national anthem protests are to blame, 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.

"If a larger share of respondents claimed they watched more NFL, the fact that NFL ratings were actually down last year is good enough reason to discard this survey as meaningless," Patrick Redford wrote in Deadspin.

Like the Seton Hall survey, the reasons for tuning out were offered as a list for respondents to choose from, so people weren’t necessarily offering the anthem protests on their own, and respondents could provide multiple answers.

Paulsen said that NFL rating drops aren’t unprecedented, with 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

Trump said "NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country."

Ratings were down 8 percent in 2016, but experts said the drop was modest and in line with general ratings for the sports industry. The NFL remains the most watched televised sports event in the United States.

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, which coincided with the season’s first week, may help explain the drop.

NFL game attendance dropped slightly from 2016 to 2017, and rose from 2015 to 2016.

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

We rate this claim Mostly False.

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
Mostly False
"NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country."
in a tweet
Sunday, September 24, 2017

Our Sources

Donald J Trump, Tweet, Sept. 24, 2017

Donald J Trump, Tweet, Sept. 24, 2017

Email interview with Steven Cheung, White House spokesman, Sept. 24, 2017

Phone interview with Paulsen, editor in chief of Sports Media Watch, Sept. 24, 2017

Email interview with Anthony Crupi, media reporter at Advertising Age, Sept. 24, 2017

Advertising Age, Out-of-Home Viewing Erased the NFL's Ratings Deficit Last Season, Sept. 21, 2017

Sports Media Watch, NFL TV ratings, accessed Sept. 24, 2017

J.D. Power, J.D. Power Finds MLS and NHL Teams Outscore NFL Teams in Fan Experience, Aug. 16, 2017

Washington Post, What that study about the decline in football viewership actually says, July 27, 2017

Seton Hall University, NFL TV Ratings Down; Fans Cite a Host of Factors, Led by National Anthem Protests, Oct. 27, 2016

ESPN, Anthem protests led poll of reasons viewers tuned out, July 27, 2017

Deadspin, How To Mangle A Survey, By Darren Rovell, July 27, 2017

PolitiFact, Trump’s Pants on Fire claim that CNN ratings are ‘way down’, July 3, 2017

CNN Money, NFL ratings are down again this season. Is it time to panic yet?, Sept. 20, 2017

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Trump's Mostly False claim that NFL ratings are 'way down'

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