December 31, 2017

AP Picks NFL’s Anthem Antics As Top 2017 Sports Story — But Not Empty Seats, Lower TV Ratings

On Christmas Day, perhaps to minimize its exposure, the Associated Press published its top ten sports stories of the year. Readers will not be at all surprised that “NFL players kneeling during the national anthem” as a result of President Donald Trump’s “feud with the NFL” was “the runaway winner … in balloting by AP members and editors.” Predictably, the AP didn’t mention the lower attendance and lower TV ratings which have resulted from the players’ ill-advised protests.

Here is the AP’s reporting on its top 2017 sports story:

A list of the top sports stories of 2017

Colin Kaepernick didn’t take a snap in the NFL in 2017, yet he was a big part of the biggest story of the year.

NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, something Kaepernick started a year earlier to bring attention to social injustices, set off a national debate that erupted once President Donald Trump chimed in.

His call for owners to fire players who protested during “The Star-Spangled Banner” led to a massive show of defiance in the days that followed.

The president’s feud with the NFL is the runaway winner for top sports story of 2017 in balloting by AP members and editors, easily outdistancing the corruption scandal engulfing college basketball and the Houston Astros winning their first World Series and lifting the spirits of a city devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

Here is a list of the biggest sports stories in 2017:

1. NFL players who knelt during the national anthem said they were exercising their free-speech rights and trying to bring attention to social injustices. Critics, including the president, said they were disrespecting the flag, the country and the military. Kaepernick sued the league when no team signed him.

Continuing a four-month pattern of deliberate establishment press denial, the AP didn’t consider the negative fallout the NFL has suffered as a result of the anthem protests, namely the “massive show of defiance” in which fans have engaged by not attending the games or watching them on TV, worthy of inclusion.

Even during the season’s early games, when every team’s fans could at least entertain hopes of making the playoffs, empty seats were a noticeable problem. The phenomenon, rarely seen previously, never really let up, even affecting many traditional rivalry games as well as late-season games with playoff implications. The empty seats did not affect the NFL’s officially reported attendance figures, which reflect tickets sold as opposed to fans who actually showed up. At least one ad industry writer and one sports reporter, both of whom should know better, erroneously used those inflated attendance figures as evidence that the problem was being exaggerated.

With only the league's New Year's Eve games remaining to be played, the NFL's regular season TV ratings were down sharply (by 9 percent as of mid-December). The weekly detail of ratings seen at Sports Media Watch through Week 16 has far more red results showing declines than green results indicating increases. The go-to excuses for NFL apologists — cable cord-cutting, weak matchups, and injured players — do not fully explain the declines.

It’s also hard to ignore that fact that six of the ten top-rated and most-watched games this year listed at Sports Media Watch involved a mediocre and disappointing Dallas Cowboys team which failed to make the playoffs. Perhaps that’s partially because team owner Jerry Jones has generally been the most outspoken in insisting that his players stand during the National Anthem — or risk losing their jobs.

The fact is that the NFL has squandered so much goodwill that the game has lost its once-thought unassailable perch as America’s favorite pro sport. The graphic below shows what happened to the sport’s favorability in August, before President Trump criticized National Anthem-kneeling players, and September, after he did:


To be clear, August and September are strong months for baseball, so its higher favorability at those times is not surprising. The key takeaway is that pro football’s favorability declined sharply just as enthusiasm should have been building for the beginning of regular season play, and before all of the other excuses for declining attendance and ratings were at all relevant.

The NFL’s and the sports reporting establishment’s reaction to all of this, which has been virtually complete denial, does not bode well for the league going forward. Note that the NFL’s looming problems were also not part of the Associated Press’s narrative as it celebrated players’ clearly quixotic “massive defiance” as their top sports story of the year.

Cross-posted at


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