A professional football player kneels at a game.
With the death of George Floyd sparking widespread protests over police brutality and social injustice, the sports industry will be watching to see if player demonstrations could have an impact on National Football League Inc. ratings and advertising dollars.
Floyd died when a now-former Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Many expect the outcry over Floyd's death will continue throughout the summer — and protests could find their way onto NFL sidelines this fall.
Richard Lapchick, an activist and director of The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport and professor at the University of Central Florida's Devos Sport Business Management program, noted that protests related to racial injustice in the past often lasted for just a couple of weeks or a month.
This time, though, he believes the protests could be sustained for far longer, as more than 350 athletes, coaches and executives across various leagues and sports have expressed outrage.
"Athletes have the voices people listen to," he said.
Quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield, veteran running back Adrian Peterson, and Bill O'Brien, coach of the Houston Texans, have all said they will kneel during the national anthem in response to racial injustice in the U.S. The Texans will open the NFL season on Sept. 10 against defending champion Kansas City.
Such actions in 2016 by former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and by more players in 2017 were among the reasons the NFL's average game audiences declined during those seasons. Where there were 17.9 million viewers on average in 2015, according to Nielsen data, the NFL numbers fell to 16.5 million and 14.9 million in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
A June 3 video from high-profile NFL players called for the league to condemn racism and support the players. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell delivered a video message the following day, expressing regret over the NFL's previous stance requiring all athletes to stand for the anthem if they were on the field, saying all should feel free to speak out and peacefully protest.
"We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter," Goodell said.
In a September 2017 speech, U.S. President Donald Trump shared his outrage at players kneeling during the anthem and called upon NFL owners to fire such players. On June 8 of this year, Trump reopened the national anthem debate in a tweet asking if Goodell felt it would be acceptable for players to kneel during the anthem.
On June 15, Goodell said on ESPN, "I can't answer that," when asked about how Trump might behave toward the league in the future. He said the NFL would continue working with its players, teams and community leaders to effect changes around equality issues while noting that the NFL recently committed $250 million over a 10-year period to battle systemic racism.
The NFL did not respond to queries about whether it plans to allow protests or would encourage its players to express their voices and concerns via on-field demonstrations. But a recent poll by Yahoo News/YouGov found that 52% agreed that it is "okay for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans," while 36% of respondents said it was inappropriate. The rest of those surveyed were "not sure." That compares with 28% of Americans in 2016 who agreed with Kaepernick's kneeling.
Curt Pires, president of media management and consultancy CAP Sports, expects any NFL player protests to occur before kickoff or during the national anthem. The networks will likely cover the demonstrations during their pregame shows, at least early in the season, as newsworthy events, he said.
Brad Adgate, a media consultant and former executive at buying agency Horizon Media, however, reminded that the networks do not necessarily televise the national anthem, save for NBC (US), which often broadcasts a celebrity singing it during its "Sunday Night Football" telecasts.
As the most-watched programming on linear TV, NFL games generate high demand among advertisers that want to reach these large audiences. For instance, regular-season games last year produced $4.5 billion in ad sales for networks carriers, up 15.4% from $3.9 billion in 2018, according to data from iSpot.TV.
With the pandemic canceling the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament and delaying the NBA and NHL playoffs, Adgate said advertisers have money to spend and want to target the NFL's large audience. He added that brands may adapt their messaging to the Black Lives Matter movement and related causes.
The NFL is at the "top of the pyramid" when it comes to the pent-up demand for sports, an ad agency veteran said in an interview. He said it would be "odd" for a marketer to pull its advertising from NFL broadcasts if there were on-field protests, even if the country's leader disagrees with the practice, given public support for the Floyd protests.
"[An advertiser] would certainly draw attention to itself that way," he noted.
Pires also does not believe national advertisers would want to alienate any potential customers. Rather, he noted that potential defections could occur with teams' local sponsors as some auto dealers did back in 2016.
Leagues are also taking action themselves to remove certain sponsors who they feel have responded to the protests inappropriately. For instance, the NFL's Carolina Panthers, as well as the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, recently dropped Charlotte-based CPI Security as a sponsor after CEO Ken Gill made racist remarks in the wake of the Floyd protests.
Scott Robson, an analyst at Kagan, a media research group with S&P Global Market Intelligence, noted that the league was under "much more of a microscope in 2016 and 2017" and that society's lens on racial and social issues is much wider now.
Robson said there could be some "small impact" on viewing from those who oppose games as a protest forum or have other political motivations for not watching the games. However, he believes any political headwinds will be made up by interest in new storylines, such as quarterback Tom Brady's move to Tampa Bay, and from sports betting, which is now legalized in more states.
The average game audience has improved the past two seasons to 15.7 million viewers in 2018 and 16.5 million last season.
Adgate anticipates average audiences will grow again in 2020, if the pandemic allows for play, resulting from pent-up demand among sports-starved fans and a fall TV season that might not have its usual allotment of fresh entertainment fare as COVID-19 concerns have halted production.
Lee Berke, president and CEO of consultancy LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media, acknowledged Goodell's latest statement on protests "might upset some people, but there are more than enough fans to make that up."
Goodell's position could actually engender more goodwill toward the NFL overall, especially among younger viewers who support the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.