Football popularity waning before big game

By David Mullen

Last month, Gallup released a survey of American adults regarding their favorite sport. The poll results were not surprising, but still sent some warning signals to the National Football League as they come upon their biggest game of the year.

Football is the favorite sport among 37 percent of U.S. adults. But that is down significantly over the years. And only 30 percent of the advertiser and television network-coveted 18 to 34 years old age group chose football as their favorite sport. Support for most other sports, including college football, had not changed significantly.

Gallup polled 1,049 U.S. adults from Dec. 4-11. The poll has a margin of error of four points. Interesting is that the sharpest decline in pro football popularity came from Republicans and Independents, while interest in the game among Democrats seemed steady in the study. The poll cited three key reasons for football’s decline in popularity:

  • The 2014 video of star running back Ray Rice punching and dragging his wife from an elevator disgraced the league. Couple that with the slow reaction time from Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office to acknowledge the tape and the seeming light sentence handed out to Rice accelerated in a decline in popularity of NFL football.
  • A potential cover-up by the NFL on player concussion issues and then another slow reaction to try to remedy the problem is also named as reasons that fans began to turn away their interest in NFL football. The fan interest in the problem was stoked by the 2015 film “Concussion,” starring the popular actors Will Smith, Alec Baldwin and Luke Wilson.
  • Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem and all that resulted after that became a political football among fans (especially season tickets holders), political conservatives and even President Donald Trump. The controversy has still not gone away and has been mentioned as something to watch for in February’s Super Bowl LII.

I am going to add two more factors: length of games and inconsistency of officiating. The playoffs were a great barometer on how the officiating in NFL games has declined so much. Making matters worse is the dependency on instant replay, which makes games longer in total time.

Also, the moment the New England Patriots defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars in Sunday’s AFC Championship game, social media blew up with conspiracy theories that the NFL and NFL officials wanted New England to return to the Super Bowl to maximize television ratings.

As measured against all adults, football’s 37 percent rating as their most popular sports eclipses basketball at 11 percent, baseball at nine percent and soccer at seven percent. But with the Latino population growing and on the way to becoming the largest ethnic group in the U.S., the number of baseball and soccer numbers are bound to increase at the expense of pro football.

The Latino population does not have an athlete that they can immediately identify with in football or basketball, which is not the case in baseball and soccer. At one point, early in the 2017 football season, a right-leaning Winston Group reported that just 42 percent of males aged 34-54 had a favorable view of the NFL in September, a 31-point drop from the 73 percent stated in the same poll in August. The conservative group said that baseball was the most popular sport in the U.S. in September, with six out of 10 Americans viewing Major League Baseball favorably, compared to just 13 percent who didn’t view it favorably.

A favorable view of sports is not the same as the Gallup survey of favorite sports. But still, as the NFL further distances themselves from fans — the unpopular Goodell received a five-year, $200 million contract extension in December — the league must realize that they are facing an identity crisis and continuing to alienate their core fan base.


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