NFL viewership was down. Here's why Eagles fans tuned out

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Referee John Hussey talks with side judge Allen Baynes outside the review booth during a 2016 NFL game. Fans in Philadelphia that say they watched less football last season blamed it on the delays in gameplay caused by penalties and reviews.

The NFL suffered a ratings blow last season, with an average 8 percent decline in viewership for the 2016 regular season compared with the previous year, according to numbers obtained by ESPN.

Now, we’re getting some potential insight why.

Ten percent of respondents in a new JD Power survey said they watched fewer NFL games on television, and 16 percent said they attended fewer games in person. Of those who said they were viewing less football, the most common reason for tuning out — cited by 26 percent of respondents — was protests of the national anthem, led by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Here in Philadelphia, where 13 percent of those surveyed said they watched less football and 18 percent reported attending fewer games, it was penalty flags that bugged fans the most.

According to survey participants, game delays due to penalties and instant replays were the most common reason, with 38 percent citing the delays as their reason for tuning out. That was the highest percentage of fans upset about penalties among the 11 major markets surveyed. The Eagles were the eighth-most-penalized team in the league last season, with 113 penalties.

“Fans in Philadelphia are a little restless,” noted Greg Truex, a senior director at JD Power and author of the survey.

That’s not to say annoyed Eagles fans didn’t have protests on their minds. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins led protests during the national anthem, silently raising his fist in the air prior to every game last season, in an attempt to raise awareness about police brutality and the growing divide between officers and citizens in towns across the country.

Of those who watched less football, 32 percent said it was due to protests of the national anthem.

Camera icon Yong Kim / Staff Photographer
Eagles’ strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (center), defensive back Ron Brooks (right) and defensive end Steven Means stand with their first in the air during the national anthem.

“It’s a tough conversation no matter who you are, from the president of the United States to a professional athlete, talking about police brutality or talking about race relations; it’s a sensitive part of American history,” Jenkins told reporter Jeff McLane last December. “It’s uncomfortable, and it’s a commitment. It’s one thing to speak out, but when you step out front of an issue like this, there really is no stepping back from it.”

An additional 30 percent of Philadelphia fans chalked their dissatisfaction up to off-the-field issues with domestic violence.

Only 16 percent of respondents in Philadelphia said they tuned out due to the highly engaging presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, something NFL commissioner Roger Goodell claimed was “certainly a factor” in the league’s loss of viewers.

As USA Today’s A.J. Perez pointed out, the 8 percent decline in national television ratings was actually a rebound from a 14 percent drop during the season’s first nine weeks. Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s executive vice president of media, attributed the shift to the presidential election.

“Presidential elections have always had an impact on our ratings, so we were prepared for a dip this season,” Rolapp told the newspaper, adding that he was “pleased at how our viewership rebounded after the election.”

Here are the reasons Philadelphians cited for watching less football and attending fewer games:

  • 38 percent – Game delays, including penalty flags
  • 32 percent – National anthem protests
  • 30 percent – Off-field image problems with domestic violence
  • 28 percent – Excessive commercials and advertising
  • 16 percent – Presidential election coverage
  • 1 percent – Cord-cutting

Some other takeaways from the study:

Chicago is a tough market. In the Windy City, 22 percent of respondents said they watched less football, and 25 percent said they attended fewer games last season — both of which topped all cities in the survey. Like Philadelphia, the main reason cited were delays in play.

Domestic violence not a big deal in Miami. According to the survey, just 10 percent of those who watched less football said they did so because of domestic violence. Five Dolphins players have been arrested in domestic violence disputes since 2000, including Chad “Ocho Cinco” Johnson, who was cut in 2014, less than 24 hours after officers said he head-butted his wife.

Dallas had the largest increase in viewership. While only 18 percent of Philadelphia fans said they watched more football on television last season, 35 percent of Dallas fans said they tuned in more often, the highest number among the 11 cities. That shouldn’t be surprising, as rookie sensations Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and a division championship after a dismal 4-12 season in 2015.