The National Football League has been the heartbeat of the United States for years. It’s a heartbeat that’s slowing down now.
It’s not flatlining: The NFL is still a juggernaut, even when it’s going through ratings slumps. The Super Bowl in 2019 hit an 11-year low in ratings, but it was still watched by more than 98 million people. The Super Bowl this past February ended a four-year skid in viewership. In total, the Super Bowl has 29 of the 30 most-watched telecasts in U.S. history (the M*A*S*H finale stands strong at No. 9).
The NFL has soldiered on, fighting through controversies from concussions to domestic violence, but it’s the political bug that’s stung the most. NFL ratings dipped in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick started his kneeling protests during the national anthem and fell further in 2017 when players intensified the protest in response to President Trump.
And now, when a country starved of sports during a pandemic meets an NFL that has leaned harder than ever into social justice politics, the fans are still bleeding away. The NFL’s kickoff game, featuring its two most exciting young quarterbacks, saw a 16% drop from last year’s opener, a 10-year low. Sunday Night Football, featuring two of the most marketable teams in the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams, dropped 23%.
Even then, the numbers are strong, and the NFL is still the giant of American entertainment. The Sunday afternoon game featuring Tom Brady making his debut on a new team after nearly two decades with the New England Patriots netted big numbers. But that game is an anomaly so far. NFL ratings were down because of politics in 2016 and 2017, and after climbing back up the last two years, they appear to be headed back down again.
The NFL can survive short-term dips, and it’s shown that it can bounce back from political controversy before. But even the biggest stars can’t always muster a comeback.