So far during the NFL season, there are no signs that attendance has been hurt by threat of boycotts in reaction to player protests during the national anthem. However, there are some simple reasons people should be skeptical of the numbers for now.
Through ten weeks of the 2017 season, the average attendance at NFL games is actually up slightly, from 68,914 per game in 2016 to 69,264 per game this season. In addition, while the home stadiums fluctuate each week, there is no obvious sign that attendance has dropped since the start of the season. In fact, the NFL had its highest average attendance of the season in Week 9 (continued below).
While this looks like good news for the NFL on the surface, there are reasons to be skeptical.
First and foremost, the NFL is driven by season-ticket sales and tickets purchased prior to the start of the season. That suggests that attendance this season was not impacted by players kneeling during the 2016 season. However, it doesn't tell us if ticket sales will be hurt as a result of the growing criticism this season, especially from President Donald Trump. The true impact of the backlash this season won't be felt until the 2018 season, if at all.
The other issue to keep in mind is that attendance figures do not necessarily tell us how many people actually attended the games. Since 2005, the NFL has encouraged teams to report “tickets distributed” as opposed to the actual number of fans that pass through the turnstiles. Tickets distributed includes tickets sold and tickets given away (e.g. charity donations).
That's why we can have a game in San Francisco with a reported “attendance” of 70,000 and the stadium still looks half empty.
The NFL can fudge the numbers this season. But they won't be able to fudge as much next season if ticket sales drop.