Only 51% of men aged 18 to 49, the NFL’s core audience, report that they follow the NFL, down from 75% just four years ago.
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey taken just ahead of the Super Bowl shows that the fans the NFL needs most just aren’t that into them anymore.
The poll shows that fans are following the sport less closely, even in key demographics, such as young men, that historically propelled the league’s growth. At the same time, parents increasingly want their children to turn away from football amid growing worry about player safety and the league’s efforts to address it.
The drop in interest spans age groups and the political spectrum—painting the picture of a sport that isn’t just experiencing a momentary dip, but a battle against fundamental questions about football’s future that have been building for years.
The NFL is taking the hit following two years of intense politicization as players chose to kneel or sit in protest against the American flag and the National Anthem. League Commissioner Roger Goodell chose not to enforce league policy that players stand during the anthem, instead siding with players who largely weren’t sure exactly what they were protesting or how their actions would change anything – other than game attendance and viewership.
Ratings and advertising revenue have dropped dramatically since the protests reached their pinnacle and as of December, fans could get a Colts ticket for just $2, Carolina Panthers seats went as cheap as $7 and even Green Bay Packers tickets went for as little as $12.
While most Americans found the protests ineffective and abhorrent, the league bet that its key demographic would largely either support the players or not care – they were wrong.
Micah Roberts, a Republican pollster who helped conduct the poll along with Democratic pollster Fred Yang, said that from the NFL’s perspective, this is “absolutely the last group you would want to retreat.”
“If I’m the NFL I’m freaking out about that a little bit,” Roberts said. “They are the very core of the football-viewing audience. If they’re retreating, then who’s left?”