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Experts Puzzled Over Significant Drop In NFL TV Ratings

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Have we fallen out of love with football just a little bit? NFL TV ratings, once thought to be completely bulletproof, have dropped about 10 percent this season across all networks. The drop is even worse for the primetime games. Why is this happening? Well, there are no shortage of theories, but no definitive answers either. Reporter Joe Flint wrote about this for The Wall Street Journal, and he's here with me in the studio now. Thanks for coming in.

JOE FLINT: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: OK, so just last year, the NFL had some of the best ratings ever. I mean, what are some of the theories behind this year's drop?

FLINT: The main culprit, according to the NFL, is the election and all the coverage and all the attention that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are getting and that they're sucking a lot of air out of the room. One of the debates went up against Monday Night Football and, of course, crushed it. And on Sunday afternoons, even, the cable news networks are all up dramatically in viewers and men 18 to 49, which is, of course, the core NFL demographic. So that's what the league believes, but there are other folks who have different ideas.

MCEVERS: OK, so what are some of those ideas?

FLINT: Well, there are some who just think that the quality of NFL play has been on the decline. There's also some key players missing. Tom Brady was suspended for the first four weeks. Tony Romo's hurt. Peyton Manning's retired. All these things are - are maybe contributing to a little less fan interest. And then there is a very vocal minority, as I've learned in the last two days since writing about this, of people very upset with the league's non-reaction to the players protesting during the national anthem.

MCEVERS: OK, so you're referring, of course, to protests started by Colin Kaepernick, and then other players have followed. What are people saying about it to you?

FLINT: Well I've gotten a lot of emails from readers very upset about it. They feel it's disrespectful to the country, disrespectful to the game. They're upset that the NFL, which will fine a player if they're wearing the wrong socks or if the shoe laces aren't tied right, is letting this go by, which they see as a tacit endorsement.

Some readers say they don't have an issue with protest, but they don't want to see it on the football field. Why does sports have to be politicized? Can't it be the one refuge away from this? And others are just furious about it in general and say they're tired of spoiled athletes not respecting the country and - and the flag.

And, again, I can't say this is a real issue driving the ratings or not. The NFL certainly isn't - doesn't think so. On the other hand, if it is, I wouldn't expect them to say they recognize that. So, you know, we'll have to just see as time goes on, especially after the election.

MCEVERS: Now, I'm about to say something that some people would consider, you know, completely un-American and possibly even unconstitutional. Is it possible that, after all these years of consuming football 24/7, 365 days a year and all these different platforms, people are just getting tired of football?

FLINT: Well, it's interesting. I mean, I'm a football fan. I've grown up watching the game, and I still watch, but I don't watch it with the same intensity. I, myself, am kind of frustrated with the constant tweaking to the rules that the NFL does, the constant trying to get everything perfect that really interrupts the flow of the game, which, of course, then means more commercials, which then gives me another reason to turn the channel, lose interest and get bored. And I'm hearing from some readers that that, too, is an issue. And I think another thing we can't dismiss is we are learning so much more about the violence of the game - the injuries, the concussions. It's just become tougher to watch and see. And I don't think that can be diminished either, and especially as time goes on and fewer kids are playing football as youths, which means they might not be watching it as much as they become adults.

MCEVERS: Well, Joe Flint of The Wall Street Journal, thank you so much for coming in.

FLINT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.