Is NFL attendance hurt by the boycott? Not really

Published 2:15 pm Friday, December 22, 2017

One of the biggest stories in the NFL has been the attempt to boycott the NFL games due to former San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem. Boycott supporters claim their efforts are hurting attendance.  Is that case?

“At least 24 players kneeling this weekend at NFL stadiums that are now having a very hard time filing up,” Donald Trump tweeted recently.  “The American public is fed up with the disrespect the NFL is paying to our Country, our Flag and our National Anthem.  Weak and out of control!”

The controversy began last year when San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick chose to take a knee during the National Anthem, to protest the shootings of unarmed African-American males. Before the end of the year, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers, hoping to make more money on the free agency market.  But it didn’t happen. While he claims it is racism (the number of African-American players, even QBs in the NFL doesn’t support that view) my research found that his low QB rating, inaccurate passing, fumbles and sacks, along with his 1-10 record as a starter had more to do being unsigned, despite a favorable TD-to-interception rate and rushing touchdowns.

The matter might have ended there, until Donald Trump visited Alabama and slammed the NFL for not harshly disciplining Kaepernick (who was not on any team at the time, and still isn’t).  More players took a knee, more in support of Kaepernick’s right to do so last year.

In response, some Trump supporters sought to only boycott the NFL, even though players in the NBA, Major League Baseball, and other sports joined in the movement to take a knee, which makes you wonder if this is more about how his USFL failed after three years of competing with the NFL in the 1980s.

In addition to Trump’s tweets, Breitbart News ran an article about NFL attendance, citing photos of empty seats posted to Twitter, trying to make the argument that their boycott has led to poor attendance.  Are NFL critics right? I look at evidence from attendance, rather than pregame and postgame pics.

In 2015, before the controversy, the NFL averaged 68,400 fans per game. In 2016, ESPN data showed that 68,772 fans per game, not counting the San Diego (now Los Angeles Chargers, who moved to a much smaller stadium, making a direct comparison problematic … and the average is 68,939 without San Diego). In 2017, through seven games, it’s 69,177.29 per game without the L.A. Chargers, or 67,806.81, so average attendance is up. Even if you ignore the fact that the Chargers are playing in a much smaller stadium, and don’t want to compare apples to apples, any “boycott” is having a negligible effect (238.29 fans per game, if you don’t control for S.D.). Analysis of each team, comparing attendance from 2016 to 2017, reveals six teams with an increase of more than 1,000 fans per game from last year and six teams with a decrease of more than 1,000 fans per game from last year.  The other 19 teams had increases or decreases of less than 1,000 fans (excluding the Chargers, of course). There’s little change between 2016 and 2017, and the numbers are above 2015 attendance. Business Insider agrees. But what about those empty seats? To study those, I went to Fox News for the answer. “Empty seats have become a recurring problem for several franchises,” wrote Rob Foldy.  “So far on the year, 10 teams are playing to stadiums that are less than 95 percent full, up from just five teams in 2008, per Will Graves of the Associated Press.”

Right now, boycott supporters are cheering this story.  Perhaps I should have warned you first that this article was written in 2013, years before the controversy.  Their evidence for empty seats came from a Sports Business Journal survey. In other words, those empty seats you see at before and after games for the hapless Dolphins or 49ers are unrelated to the boycott, unless you really believe that people are spending $150 per ticket for game ($1,200) and deliberately staying home, just to show the NFL.  If so, I’m sure the NFL doesn’t mind the extra business it’s getting.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.