Business·Analysis

Kaepernick-style protests grow but unlikely to affect NFL's bottom line

Colin Kaepernick is taking on decades of racial injustice in a silent protest. Some say it's cost him a spot on a team this year. Others say the harsh realities of the economics of the NFL are just too hard to beat.

Some calling for 'blackout' of football games to hurt the league financially

Eli Harold, left, Colin Kaepernick, centre, and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest on the sideline during the national anthem at New Era Field on October 16, 2016. (Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Colin Kaepernick's lonely protest got some company this week. Hundreds of people demonstrated outside NFL headquarters in New York City. Other players are following suit and joining him in taking a knee during the U.S. national anthem. Even some white players are lending their support to his demonstration against racial injustice. 

And yet, with just two weeks to go before the season starts, the quarterback still doesn't have a job — and that has his supporters crying foul, accusing the NFL of blackballing him for taking a stand.

Kaepernick has been silently kneeling as a way to protest against racial injustice and police brutality. It has won him support from millions of fans. But his many critics say he's a mediocre quarterback at best, and that the protest is baggage he'd bring into a locker room and distract from a team needing focus.

Pastors call for boycott

This week, a group of pastors in Alabama decided to launch their own support of Kaepernick, organizing a boycott until he lands a spot on a team.

"We are asking everybody to spread the word, so we speak the language the NFL understands, which is money," Debleaire Snell told CBC Radio's Day 6. He's a pastor at the First Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. 

Snell and other pastors from the state are calling on football fans to "blackout" the NFL. They say they'll refuse to watch the games, engage in fantasy football or buy any NFL-sponsored products. Snell says they'll take the time they'd normally spend watching football and spend it instead mentoring young people.

"If the ratings take a significant or even noticeable dip, I think it'll be clear that this is a matter that is resonating with a whole lot of people and it will affect their bottom line," says Snell.

But that's a big "if."

The NFL's $13B bottom line

First let's look at the NFL's bottom line. Revenues this year are projected to exceed $13 billion. Ratings dropped last year (by eight per cent) but ad revenues actually went up. All that while Kaepernick's take-a-knee protest was at its peak.

"Kaepernick's protests appear to have not hurt the league financially. However, they have hurt his prospects," says Hannah Holmes, who teaches a course called the Economics of Professional Sport at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, kneels during the anthem prior to a game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on September 18, 2016. (Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

She says TV broadcast deals make up about half of the league's total revenues. Other revenues include jerseys. Holmes says last year Kaepernick's jersey rose to the most sold in the NFL in spite of a performance that was well off his best years.

So, Holmes says, the league's revenues are up, Kaepernick merchandise is selling well. It's not like there's a groundswell  of pressure for teams to sign him "or else."

Distraction?

"Many teams who need help at QB are passing on Kaepernick not just because of his substandard play but also because of the negative attention he carries with him," which can be a huge distraction for a team that is struggling to begin with, she says.

The word "distraction" is thrown around a lot in professional sports. And it means wildly different things to different people. Kaepernick has staged a quiet, even dignified protest. He's taken a stand against something that resonates with millions of Americans. But it's also something that infuriates millions more. 

Critics of the NFL say there's a blatant hypocrisy at play. That he's a "distraction" while players with a history of domestic assault, DUI or cruelty to animals are welcomed back to teams and rewarded with multimillion-dollar contracts.

Kaepernick, who opted out of his contract back in March, is reportedly looking for between $9 and $10 million a year. That's the upper echelon of football players. And yes, he quarterbacked the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl in 2012, but he's had some rough years since.

There are still a few teams that may be interested in Kaepernick, especially as the start of the season approaches and the potential grows for teams to sign him at a discount. But if he's not signed, should the league brace for widespread demonstrations and a meaningful drop in ratings?

"Will fans abandon the game or ratings drop significantly?" asks Holmes. "Not likely. Football is 'America's game.'" 

About the Author

Senior Business reporter for CBC News. A former host of On the Money and World Report on CBC Radio, Peter Armstrong has been a foreign correspondent and parliamentary reporter for CBC. Twitter: @armstrongcbc

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