The NFL’s television ratings rose during the 2018 regular season even as the number of kneelers fell.
After a two-year decline in television ratings, the NFL announced Wednesday that its 2018 ratings jumped by 5 percent, drawing an average of 15.8 million viewers per game versus 14.9 million during the 2017 regular season.
Viewership was still down compared to the 2016 regular season, when the league averaged 16.5 million per game, after peaking at 17.9 million in 2015. Digital streaming viewership also soared by 86 percent from the previous year.
Why the reversal? The gain could be attributed to a host of factors, including a bevy of exciting young stars like quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield, and a record-setting 73 games decided by three points or fewer.
At the same time, there was little news coverage surrounding the take-a-knee protests, mainly because there wasn’t much to cover.
Only three players took a knee for the anthem on a regular basis: Miami Dolphins Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson, and Eric Reid of the Carolina Panthers. All three also missed games due to injury or, in Reid’s case, not being signed to a team until October.
Marshawn Lynch of the Oakland Raiders continued to sit for the anthem, as he has long done, but was placed on injured reserve Oct. 22.
A few others held up fists, and some waited off the field in the tunnel, but nothing compared to the feud between President Trump and protesting players that dominated the 2017 season.
Last week, Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn, who raised a fist during the anthem, complained about the lack of media attention.
“Y’all ignore it,” he told the Miami Herald. “Because when I gave my first message on trying to bring unity, y’all swept it under the rug. It’s not me. When you don’t give a problematic story, y’all just ran away.”
It was a far cry from the previous season, when nearly 200 players demonstrated before Game 3 after Mr. Trump unloaded on the protesters. By the end of the year, that number had fallen to 16, according to ESPN’s running tally, most of whom played for the 49ers or Seattle Seahawks.
Neither of those teams saw any protests in 2018 as players were traded or entered free agency.
The kneeling fell even though the NFL shelved in July a two-month-old policy requiring players to stand for the anthem or remain off the field, saying the new rule would not be enforced pending discussions with the NFL Players Association.
Then again, the players had something in 2018 that they didn’t have in 2017: A $90 million agreement between team owners and the Players Coalition to fund “efforts and programs combating social inequality,” which was finalized in May.
Members of the coalition, co-founded by Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former player Anquan Boldin, have “made trips to Capitol Hill, gone on ride-alongs with police officers and held meetings with grassroots organizations, community advocates, public defenders and progressive prosecutors,” according to a Sept. 5 open letter.
“Our work will continue this season,” said the letter signed by 12 players. “We hope the media stops asking the same old questions about, ‘Will they or won’t they protest?’ Instead, we want them to focus on our efforts to create a better country for every citizen, and on the reasons why we have not yet met that goal.”