Let’s be honest. At this point only a small part of this is due to politics. We’re now two full years into Kaepernick-inspired anthem drama and 20 months into the Donald Trump presidency. The NFL’s already tweaked its rules on players about observing the anthem before the game (although the changes are on hold for now). If you’re upset enough about the protests to boycott the games, your boycott didn’t start this week.

Cold comfort for the league, though. If ratings were down due to a boycott, that’d be good news for them. Boycotts end. Politics change. If ratings are down because play is generally bad, people are grossed out by CTE, and there are too few hours in the day and too many things to watch on Netlfix, that’s a harder problem to solve.

The game still won its time slot, of course, but the stink of decline is unmistakable.

Snagging 19 million viewers on the Comcast-owned network, the late starting Eagles winning kickoff game fell 13% in broadcast audience from last year’s NFL opener with the New England Patriots and the victorious Kansas City Chiefs.

That’s another year of straight double digit decline for the NFL and NBC. With last years opener holding the previous record, the 2018 battle in Philly is also the worst any kickoff game has done since 2009

Even in a TV landscape where ratings and viewership are noticeably dipping, unless you are This Is Us or Game Of Thrones, those results have to worry the NFL and the broadcasters, especially the still Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox with its pricey Thursday Night Football debuting this year

Only Michael Bennett of the Eagles declined to stand for the anthem. If the league’s looking to spin its numbers it can point to the fact that weather delayed the kickoff, making the ending a late-night proposition on the east coast. But this was a marquee match-up of two of the NFC’s best, the 2016 conference champs versus the 2017 Super Bowl champs. If a tight game between the Eagles and Falcons can’t get football fans to put on some coffee and stick it out, what will?

The political explanation for the decline is underwhelming. And yet because so many are invested in it, it’s irresistible:

“I can’t imagine there is a single voter who will cast a ballot exclusively on the issue of NFL kneeling, but it’s a powerful tool against liberals who are trying to make cultural inroads into a conservative electorate,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

It reaffirms conservative skepticism about whether a liberal candidate sees the world the same way as they do. Unfortunately for a lot of Senate Democrats, this is a demographic they need to compete with in order to hold these red states in November.”…

“[C]andidates use these debates to signal where they stand or what cultural values they share with voters,” Madden added. “Are you with me or against me? Campaigns will try to frame a race through this type of binary choice in order to provide clarity and motivation for their base voters.”

Whether it’s true or not, it makes all the political sense in the world for righties to hype declining NFL ratings (and a Nike consumer backlash) as major cultural victories for their side, directly attributable to their own political power. Doing so puts the fear of God into the Joe Manchins and Claire McCaskills of the world: Take care that you don’t drift too far left or else the NFL’s problems will be your problems.

No one knows that better than Trump. Watch him and the crowd at his rally last night react to being reminded that the NFL was about to open its season. I can’t remember which Twitter pal said it, but it really does have the vibe of a WWE event. The audience knows exactly whom to boo, not just whom to cheer.