The relationship between sports ratings and politics is perhaps more complicated — or less relevant — than we might think.
For the last two seasons, political eyes have been fixed mainly on the NFL, and the conventional wisdom (at least on the Right) has been clear. Politicize the sport, and lower your ratings. And there’s been some data to support the notion that anthem protests turned off viewers, but how important — really — are the protests compared to other factors?
The question gets more interesting in light of reports today that college football reported its largest attendance drop in 34 years. Every Power Five conference except the Big 10 lost fans in the stands. Multiple major universities are downsizing stadiums.
This news comes on the heels of significant college football ratings declines on multiple networks. The College Football Playoff did well, but regular-season college games on ABC (down 18 percent), CBS (down 10 percent), NBC (down 3 percent), and ESPN (down 6 percent) drew significantly fewer viewers.
Yet college football not only didn’t face anthem protests at the same scale as the NFL, its red-state fan base often held up the college game as a model. It was less political. The games were often more wide-open and entertaining. The fan experience in the major conference stadiums is unmatched (show me pro fans anywhere who know how to tailgate like the fans at Ole Miss.)
Moreover, countering the thesis that politicization will invariably hurt ratings, the NBA’s ratings are way up this year, and the NBA is an extraordinarily politicized league. The league itself leads boycotts, its leading coaches are more politically outspoken than any NFL coach, and many of the league’s biggest stars are quite open about their politics. Don’t forget, Trump didn’t just feud with the NFL, he tangled with the Golden State Warriors also. Yet the NBA thrives.
All of these data points raise more questions than answers. Could it be that football’s underlying issues with concussions and player safety are far more important to its popularity than we currently understand? Or is it as simple as the NBA — compared to football — is putting a historically-good product on the screen? After all, this season features a superteam (the Warriors), a number of compelling challengers, a series of crazy dramas, and likable stars who reach out relentlessly to fans on social media.
There’s also the question of geography and competence. The NBA is one of the best-run sports leagues in the world, and its blue urban fans are the fans most likely to be inspired by Steve Kerr’s or Greg Poppovich’s political rants.
Finally, let’s not forget that the NFL’s fan base is still enormous. It still dwarfs the NBA and the college game. Given a red/blue audience so large, it needs fans from both sides to maintain its dominance. The NBA meanwhile, still has room to grow even within its blue urban enclaves. Perhaps politicization has a unique impact on the NFL (that’s one of my theories), and other leagues won’t bear the cost until their fan base reaches a critical mass.
I still stand by the proposition that on-court or official league politicization is a shame (I don’t care what players, coaches, or the front office do on social media or on their own time), but it looks like it might not always be ratings poison.