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

Quarterback Jameis Winston is sacked during the first half of the Bucs' 34-17 loss to the Vikings on Sunday. (LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times)
Quarterback Jameis Winston is sacked during the first half of the Bucs' 34-17 loss to the Vikings on Sunday. (LOREN ELLIOTT | Times)
Published Sep. 25, 2017

The statement

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

President Donald Trump, Sunday in a tweet

The ruling

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.

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.

So, 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.

We rate this claim Mostly False.