Republican presidential nominee and avid football fan Donald Trump generated controversy this past weekend by attacking the established schedule of general election debates this fall, because two of the four (including the VP face-off) conflict with NFL games. Trump alleged that Hillary Clinton's campaign had somehow "rigged" the process to ensure that fewer viewers would tune in.
Trump's claims of tampering on the part of Democrats can be easily debunked, since the dates were set by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, and they were selected prior to the NFL's official schedule was revealed and before the 2016 primary campaign was in full swing, which would seem to preclude any involvement from the Clinton camp.
Yet, with "Sunday Night Football" dominating as the reigning top network TV program for four years in a row, there may be legitimate concern over whether audiences are being done a disservice by having such a high-profile diversion competing with potentially decisive debates. However, history suggests that the impact of NFL games, and sporting events in general, on presidential debates has been relatively negligible, at least ratings-wise.
The NFL was not the cultural force it is today when the first major televised presidential debate took place between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. But as the NFL's stature grew in the 1970s and '80s, the presidential debates gave them a wide birth, with no face-offs between top-tier contenders running opposite pro-football games.
However, in 1992 the debates broke precedent, with not one but two major debates running opposite evening games. Yet with that unpredictable race -- and the presence of third-party candidate Ross Perot on the debate stage -- the ratings didn't suffer substantially. In fact, the Oct. 15 debate, which aired during a regular season Vikings vs. Lions game, ranks among the highest-rated presidential debates in history, with nearly 70 million viewers.
In 1996, one of the debates between incumbent President Bill Clinton and Republican nominee Sen. Bob Dole competed with an Oilers vs. Bengals game airing on cable. Ratings dropped that year compared to '92, but that may have been a result of a less competitive general election race than football cutting into the audience share. Neither of that year's presidential debates cracked the all-time top 10 for viewership.
The debate commission, intentionally or not, steered clear of NFL games from 2000 through 2008, only venturing into football's territory again in 2012. That year one of the presidential debates and the vice presidential debate ran opposite a Monday night game and a Thursday night game, respectively.
The ratings for the first of President Obama's and then-GOP nominee Mitt Romney's debates that year ranks among the highest ever (a total of 67 million viewers tuned in). Their third debate, which ran opposite a Monday Night Football game between the Lions and Bears, did take a significant dip in the ratings, drawing 59.2 million viewers. However, a bigger factor may have been that it also coincided with Game 7 of that year's Major League Baseball's National League Championship Series, which determined whether the San Francisco Giants or St. Louis Cardinals would be headed the World Series. The Giants, and that November, Obama, eventually prevailed. ESPN did drop planned four-game coverage of the MLB playoffs that year in deference to the first debate.
Ironically, baseball has presented the bigger ratings conflict for the NFL on Sundays in the fall. With the MLB playoffs and the World Series often stretching into mid-October, when regular season NFL games are ongoing, there have been multiple instances where viewer loyalty was divided. However, there is some evidence, from as recently as this past year, of debates viewership being hindered by sports competition, too.
But in an era where DVR, streaming services and the Internet provide so many options for audiences who can't catch a program in real time, voters should be able to get access to debates, if they seek them out. Still, the NFL would clearly like to avoid the competition, even though the league has emphatically denied Trump's assertion that they reached out to him about the issue.
"The Debates Commission released the dates in September 2015. Our ’16 schedule was released in April ’16 (our scheduled is annually announced in April)," NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told NBC News in a statement on Monday. "Naturally, we would prefer the Debates Commission would select a different night for the debates."