I realize that it’s debate day and everyone wants to focus on that, but it’s also Football Day in America, where non-gridiron news is still being made. You might have already heard that the ratings for NFL games are, uh… weak, to put it kindly. For true fans of the sport it’s tempting to think that crass things like advertising dollars can’t tarnish the glory of the game, but the NFL is a business. And it’s a huge business. They have to keep advertising revenue flowing to feed the beast and fewer people watching translates to a serious loss. With that in mind, the league has sent out a missive to the various owners addressing the issue. Their message? Don’t worry about it… this is just a blip on the radar. (Fox News)

The National Football League has sent a memo to team owners seeking to ease concerns about the ratings decline that has hit football this fall.

Through the first four weeks of the season, NFL viewership has declined 11 percent, and among the crucial adults 18-49 demographic that advertisers covet, ratings are down 12 percent.

“While our partners, like us, would have liked to see higher ratings, they remain confident in the NFL and unconcerned about a long-term issue,” the letter from NFL senior executives Brian Rolapp and Howard Katz said, adding that over the last 15 years, ratings viewership has grown 27 percent and that football “continues to be far and away the most powerful programming on television and the best place for brands and advertisers.”

That certainly sounds great if you take it at face value but it doesn’t do anything to change the bottom line numbers. So what is the league blaming an 11% drop in ratings on? The election. They’re citing an “unprecedented interest” in the battle between Clinton and Trump. pointing to a corresponding increase in ratings for Fox, CNN and MSNBC. But that’s not an answer that’s going to satisfy everyone because the news networks always get a bump around election time in even numbered years, particularly when the White House is on the line. Somehow the football faithful still manage to order up their hot wings and beer to gather around the tube.

The league also felt compelled to address complaints about Colin Kaepernick and other players showing disrespect toward the National Anthem. Their take on it? Hey… it’s not really an issue.

As for a potential backlash by some viewers angered at players not standing for the national anthem to protest of police brutality, the NFL said it sees no evidence to that being a factor in declining ratings: “In fact, our own data shows that the perception of the NFL and its players is actually up in 2016.”

Aside from their internal numbers I’m having a hard time buying this pitch. It’s completely anecdotal to be sure, but my own observations of long time contacts on social media tell a different story. Just this morning I tweeted something out about the big Jets – Steelers game today and was almost immediately answered by one of my followers who said this:

Sure, that’s just one person but they are hardly alone, at least when measured in my timeline. I’ve seen too many folks saying they are boycotting all the games entirely or, at a minimum, watching their home team play but not bothering with the other time slots on Sunday or the Monday night games. (And that’s pretty much how I’ve been consuming football this season.)

At the same time I won’t deny that television is a competitive business when it comes to capturing viewers. There has already been one debate lined up against Monday Night Football and this one will run head to head against the Sunday night game. There has to be some crossover between the audiences, so you would expect those two games to pull fewer viewers. But what about the rest of the earlier Sunday games and the Thursday night offerings when they air? Tuning in for a unique, one off event like a presidential debate is one thing, but I find it harder to swallow the idea that die hard football fans are now sitting around watching every minute of CNN roundtable discussions for hours on end rather than watching the games.

But don’t just take my word for it based on one blogger’s Twitter feed. Rasmussen has been polling the question and just this week they reached a similar conclusion. Roughly one third of fans are less likely to watch a game because of the National Anthem protests.

A sizable number of Americans say they may give the National Football League a pass this year, thanks to the player protests over racial issues.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that nearly one-third (32%) of American Adults say they are less likely to watch an NFL game because of the growing number of Black Lives Matter protests by players on the field. Only 13% say they are more likely to watch a game because of the protests. Just over half (52%) say the protests have no impact on their viewing decisions.

No, I think the NFL is suffering from self-inflicted wounds. They manage to clamp down on everything else their players do, right down to the color of their shoes. If they wanted to keep the politics off the field and let people just enjoy the damn game they could do it. But they’ve chosen not to and they seem to be paying the price for it in a very literal way.