The social justice protests that took hold across the NFL landscape, originated by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in August 2016, divided football fans along cultural, ethnic and social lines. The peaceful and constitutional demonstrations carried out by players on all 32 of the league’s teams were a factor in the roughly 10 percent overall decline in television viewership from the 2016-17 season through the 2017-18 season, which concluded Sunday with the Philadelphia Eagles’ gripping 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
Many supporters of the protests claimed to have boycotted the NFL this season because they were of the opinion Kaepernick was blackballed by owners as a result of being at the forefront of the social justice movement. The 30-year-old Kaepernick went unsigned. Similarly, those opposed to the players’ activism said they also tuned in to games far less than they did a season ago.
Yet, Super Bowl LII affirmed America’s unbridled passion for the NFL and its unparalleled stranglehold on popular culture. Although viewership was down 7.9 million from last year’s Super Bowl, which matched the Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons, NBC, which televised Sunday’s spectacle, drew an average viewership of 103.4 million, making it the 10th most watched program in the history of United States television, right behind the 1983 finale of the iconic Korean War series “M*ASH.” Additionally, a little more than 2 million viewers consumed Super Bowl LII digitally utilizing various mobile devices.
Even with those impressive outcomes by almost any measure, the game attracted the least number of viewers for a Super Bowl since 2009. Nevertheless, the numbers that profoundly matter most to the NFL are 3.3 billion and 660 million. They represent the total and annual dollar value, respectively, of the new five-year deal the league agreed to with Fox Sports for the network to secure the rights to “Thursday Night Football.” Revenue that will be shared by the players and wealthy owners, of which only one, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Shahid Khan, is nonwhite. In 2016, the franchises received an equal split of a league record $7.8 billion in annual revenue.
“This agreement is the culmination of over 10 years of strategic growth around ‘Thursday Night Football,’” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement issued last week when the deal with FOX was publicly announced. “As one of the leaders in sports television and a recognized innovator of NFL game broadcasts for many years, we’re excited to be extending our partnership with FOX Sports, one of our most trusted and valued partners, to include ‘Thursday Night Football.’”
The visceral reactions from those that feel they indeed had an impact on the NFL’s bottom line by boycotting this season are understandable but should be tempered. The sobering reality is the 58-year-old Goodell—who was paid $212.5 million in his first 10 years as commissioner after being appointed in 2006—and the wealthy owners remain monumental winners.