NFL Ticket Sales – Up Or Down?

The big “news” over the last week has been Trump vs. Not vs anything specific; think of it more as vs the media.

The biggest “vs” was Trump declaring he would stop the “illegal” Obamacare (ACA) funding to the insurance companies. Is the funding really illegal, or would stopping it be illegal? That’s a future post, but in brief:

  • The funds in question are $7 billion per year of “cost sharing reductions.”
  • Only Congress can allocate funding for a project: the U.S. Constitution Article I, section 9, clause 7 states “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” (This is nicknamed The Power of the Purse.) Since no such law was passed, it’s not legal to spend it.
  • If the Republicans had tried a funding stunt like that, the Democrats would have called it illegal. And so the Republicans filed suit…
  • U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled, in “House v. Burwell” (House is the House of Representatives) that Obama’s payments – i.e. these very same payments – were illegal. She stayed action on it, meaning allowed Obama to continue pending appeal. But that’s not the same as insisting they should remain.
  • On the other hand… it is being appealed, and the courts tend to take a dim view on reducing funding to, well, anything. Which may overturn Judge Collyer’s ruling and state that ending an illegal practice is also illegal.

The second biggest “vs” continues to be Trump vs. the NFL and ESPN.

ESPN is, by all measures, pretty far left. Sports fans tend slightly to the right. The NFL is odd in that NFL fans also tend to the right, but the NFL players disproportionately come from demographics associated with the left. Which may explain why, long before Trump was even elected, Kaepernick chose this venue for his protests.

That’s a key point. Kaepernick began “protesting” prior to the election – he sat through the anthem starting on August 14th, 2016. He made his public statement about it on 28-August-2016, after sitting out the anthem three consecutive weeks. He took his first knee (instead of sitting) on 01-Sept-2016.

Which means The NFL brought (or allowed) politics to the football games in Summer 2016. This isn’t a case of Trump politicizing it; the NFL did, at a point when conventional wisdom expected Hillary Clinton to win the election.

Meanwhile, ESPN’s rating have been declining quickly. There are several likely reasons:

  • Cord cutters
  • Too much officiating, too many commercials
  • Current events: ESPN has blamed the weather, the elections, etc.
  • Injuries: ESPN claims that viewership may be declining because of fear of supporting head injuries.
  • Politics and the Protests. ESPN is, as mentioned, quite far left. Look at Jemele Hill calling Trump a “white supremacist” and Michael Wilbon saying Dallas Cowboys owner Jones has a “plantation mentality.” And there’s the protests during the anthem.

Of course, ESPN doesn’t correlate the declines to those, and it’s possible they’re correct. Although… ESPN did make an awful lot of excuses last year for the ratings, such as the Presidential debates; in theory this year should be better. Still, other sports have also had ratings declines. So how do we tell? Ticket Sales. Those protests are in the stadiums also; what’s happening there?

Surprise! As with almost any social-justice topic, we have contradictory headlines on whether NFL ticket sales rose or fell.

  • TeaParty (far right) and others cite the Washington Examiner article that found that the protests caused ticket sales to “plummet nearly 20%” (or, more precisely, 17.9%) week on week.
  • But that weekend, according to USA Today, sales went up by 9.6%.

The best comparison is not week-on-week, but last year to this year. Such numbers change naturally, of course. However, ESPN was busy last year claiming that their lower ratings last year were due to the elections, odd games and cord cutters. In other words, not due to the protests then also, which were already underway.

So our best comparison might be to 2015.

Fortunately, we have a way of measuring… the Pro Football Reference page. Here’s what you need to know, in aggregate:


Year Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Total
2015 1,097,396 1,081,704 1,104,357 1,022,945 980,190 5,286,592
2017 1,044,412 1,023,465 1,079,660 1,120,237 929,839 5,197,613

That’s pretty much your proof. Yes, attendance is down. By a whopping 1.6%! Okay, that may not be so whopping.

The next question is, or should be, is this due to the protests? How can we tell? Let’s look two years further back.


Year Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Total
2013 1,104,319 1,085,662 1,138,269 1,006,437 957,152 5,291,839
2015 1,097,396 1,081,704 1,104,357 1,022,945 980,190 5,286,592
2017 1,044,412 1,023,465 1,079,660 1,120,237 929,839 5,197,613

Notice anything interesting? The decline is relatively steady. Which tells us pretty conclusively the following:

  • Yes, ticket sales are down.
  • No, it isn’t due to the protests.

Hey, maybe ESPN is telling the truth!

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