By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — For most of the 2016 season, the NFL largely blamed the U.S. presidential election for a decline in TV ratings. But with the league’s numbers down another 7.5 percent so far in 2017, amid a growing backlash to players’ national anthem protests, the owners are finally taking the ratings decline seriously.

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A new column by The MMQB’s Albert Breer details some of the stats related to the NFL’s dropping TV ratings, and the way it affected a private meeting between players and owners on Tuesday and Wednesday at the NFL League Office in New York. He says the falling TV ratings “might just be the first proof” that the continued “discord” over player protests is negatively impacting everyone’s bottom line.

Due to the ratings figures and the owners’ reaction to them, Breer deduced that recent comments made by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones – which threatened to punish players who do not stand during the national anthem – were actually meant to connect with disgruntled TV viewers, those who are deciding to tune out the NFL in response to players’ decisions to kneel or otherwise protest during the anthem.

Nielsen reported earlier this week that the NFL’s TV ratings were down by 7.5 percent compared to the first six weeks of the 2016 season. But numbers reported to the owners at the meeting were even more alarming.

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Twenty-five of 31 NFL teams (excluding the Chargers) are experiencing local declines in ratings, including an 8 percent drop for the Patriots, 7 percent for the Cowboys, and 6 percent for the Steelers. Only the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Lions are up by more than 5 percent.

The rise of digital streaming and “cord-cutting” has also been blamed for the decline in ratings across all TV programming and not just the NFL, but the story notes that the league’s TV numbers are declining at a faster rate than their streaming numbers are rising.

The figures presented to the owners on Tuesday and Wednesday are one of the biggest signs yet that the NFL is losing viewers at a rate that goes beyond simple cord-cutting, or even a diminished on-field product. That owners chose to take serious notice of the ratings drop this week, during a meeting that was supposed to be about giving the players a chance to address social issues and their related protests, speaks volumes about how the ongoing controversy is affecting their viewership.

A number of fans have been declaring themselves part of a “boycott” of the NFL since last season, when Colin Kaepernick started the national anthem protest movement. There were other factors in last season’s ratings dip, as there always are – but there’s no election to fall back on now. It’s still hard to accurately gauge the impact of the anthem protest backlash, but it appears that it has grown enough to actually catch the attention of owners.

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