NHL ratings rise on opening night while NFL and MLB decline

By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL’s down ratings are showing little signs of improving as Week 6 of the 2016 season kicks off. Thursday Night Football between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers drew a 9.9 overnight rating, down 5 percent from the Thursday night game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons in Week 6 of 2015, according to Austin Karp of SportsBusiness Daily.

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To be fair to the NFL – something Roger Goodell does not seem to understand – the rating for Broncos-Chargers is up from last week’s Cardinals-49ers Thursday night game, which drew a 6.7 overnight rating. Nevertheless, the NFL continues to see a dip in TV ratings year-over-year. Week 6’s unenticing Sunday night and Monday night matchups don’t bode well for the league to rebound in the ratings this weekend.

The Major League Baseball playoffs also saw a ratings dip on Thursday night. Dodgers-Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS drew a 3.8 overnight rating, as compared to 5.8 for the Dodgers-Mets NLDS Game 5 last season, which was also on a Thursday.

Interestingly enough, the NHL saw an uptick in TV ratings for its season-opening slate of games on Wednesday night. The St. Louis Blues, who likely have drawn new fans after the Rams moved back to Los Angeles, saw its best-ever overnight rating for a game on NBC Sports and the fourth-highest rating in history for an opening night game on the network. The San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings’ late west-coast battle saw a 0.39 overnight rating, which looks minuscule but is actually a 34 percent improvement over the same opening night time slot last season.

For whatever reason, the NHL has seen strong early returns on its own ratings as compared to the dip for the NFL. There’s no concrete evidence that an appreciable number of fans are turning off the NFL (or even baseball) in favor of the NHL – and of course, the NHL’s total audience is still a small fraction of that of the NFL and MLB – but it’s interesting to see a rise in ratings for the NHL, nonetheless. For what it’s worth, hundreds of fans have emailed me in recent weeks to say they are boycotting the NFL over national anthem protests by its players, and a handful have mentioned the start of the NHL season in a favorable light.

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers kneels on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers kneels on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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At this point, it would be an incredible leap to suggest that the NHL is directly benefitting from whatever amount of fans are tuning out of the NFL over the anthem protests. But the movement sparked by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, while not necessarily the sole reason for fans’ disinterest in football or the lead factor in the decline of NFL ratings, may have been a “tipping point” of sorts for fans that have grown tired of the NFL’s lack of parity, diminished on-field product, over-saturated TV broadcasts, and politicizing of escapist entertainment.

An eye-opening new national poll by Quinnipiac University shows that American adults disapprove of athletes protesting the national anthem by a margin of 54 percent to 38 percent. The poll also shows a racial divide, as white Americans disapprove of the protests by a margin of 63 percent to 30 percent, while black Americans approved of the protests 74 percent to 17 percent. About 63 percent of those surveyed for the poll were white.

Putting aside the growing racial divide over Americans’ attitudes toward police, there’s no question that there is a large segment of Americans who do not approve of athletes protesting the national anthem and, by extension, the American flag, and it’s hurting the NFL. I believe the amount of fans boycotting the league is larger than many media members believe. There’s no question that the league’s overall product is down compared to previous years, and if you want to point to that factor as “ground zero” for the decline in ratings, that’s fair.

You are entitled to feel however you want about American police, military, and players’ decision to protest the anthem and flag. Just understand that if you are not one of those who is boycotting the league over these same issues, that there are people in other parts of the country who feel differently and much stronger about the subject, and you ought to be able to accept that the divide exists. Too many high-profile media members seem eager to deny that this part of the population is out there. The Sporting News deserves credit for its fearless and in-depth reporting on the matter.

Even if the boycotters don’t number in the millions or are not the main cause for the decline in the NFL’s ratings, it’s simply wrong to dismiss this segment of fans altogether.

America feels as divided as ever in 2016, and the NFL appears to be caught in the middle of it. The league can blame its ratings decline on the presidential election all it wants, but it doesn’t seem to understand how dismissive and insulting it is being to its own fans. Whether you’re watching less football because of the games themselves or the national anthem protests, the league doesn’t seem to be listening.

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Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.