Accuracy in Media

Papa John’s Pizza owner John Schnatter blamed the NFL national anthem controversy this week for a $70 million decline in sales during the last quarter, but the mainstream media was having none of it.

Slate’s story, headlined, “Papa John’s Blames Falling Sales on NFL Players Kneeling During the National Anthem (Seriously),” conceded “there is a tiny, tiny micro-speck of logic at work here, in that Papa John’s is a major NFL advertiser and NFL ratings are down this year.

“Ratings have been getting better by the week, and there’s very little reason to believe the overall drop has anything to do with protests during the national anthem given that pro football is not the only sport that has suffered viewership declines during the cord-cutting era. In any case, ‘police brutality protests are ruining my pizza business’ is not really an idea anyone should ever express out loud.”

And, of course, in case you didn’t know … “It may not surprise you to learn that John Schnatter is a big Republican donor.”

First, we are left to wonder what difference it makes Schnatter gave $1,000 to the Trump campaign last year.

Second, last weekend was the lowest ratings of the season. The problem is getting worse, not better. And claims the anthem has nothing to do with this because ratings have declined more in blue states than red states holds little water because many “blue states,” such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, no longer may be so reliably blue, and football always has been more popular in the red states of the deep South.

While other factors contributed to the decline in NFL viewership, league officials worry about oversaturation with games every Thursday and, on multiple Sundays, games in London – which means an NFL Sunday now starts at 9:30 a.m. on the East Coast.

They’re also concerned that streaming services and highlights channels, such as RedZone, which shifts from game to game during NFL Sundays to show teams threatening to score, have contributed to a decline.

Cord cutting also plays a part. Seventy-nine percent of American homes get some kind of paid-TV service, down from 84 percent in 2014. As a result, the four networks that show NFL games — CBS (-9 percent), Disney-ESPN (-4 percent), NBC Universal (-6 percent) and Fox (-2 percent) – have all seen overall ratings decline over the last month.

How much of that relates to the NFL’s problems is unknown, but NFL ratings were down more than 10 percent in the early weeks of the season. They are still 5 percent behind last year, which also marked a hefty decline attributed by most experts to the presidential election.

But Schnatter said Papa John’s is identified more strongly with the NFL than the league’s other sponsors, and that the controversy generated by players kneeling or sitting during the national anthem created “negative consumer sentiment” that led to lower sales.

Rick Gentile, a former CBS Sports executive who now runs a nationwide poll on sports issues at Seton Hall University, agreed the protests have become a huge factor.

Seton Hall polled 850 people in the last week of September and found half were watching the same number of games as in the past, but 29 percent were watching fewer – a startling number for a league that has seemed to defy ratings gravity. Of those who watched fewer games, 47 percent said it was because of the protests – by far the most common answer given.

“I was in denial for a while,” Gentile said. “But every time we asked the question, ‘Why do you watch fewer games?’ it came back the same way – the protests.”

So the protests may not be the sole cause of Schnatter’s problems, but it is more than a micro-speck of them, too.

“This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago,” Schnatter said. “But good or bad, leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership.”

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