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Wall Street Journal / Sports

Ahead of Super Bowl, Poll Shows NFL Is Losing Its Core Audience

A new WSJ/NBC News poll depicts a developing nightmare for the National Football League: Its core audience is losing interest rapidly.


By

Jared Diamond and

Andrew Beaton

Ahead of a Super Bowl that caps a tumultuous season, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll depicts a developing nightmare for the National Football League: Its core audience is losing interest rapidly, a potential threat to the league’s dominant role in American culture.

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.

Sunday night’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles comes at the end of a troublesome season for the league. The best players got hurt. The owners publicly quarreled. The decline in television ratings steepened. And the league became a polarizing political lightning rod, entangled in an imbroglio with President Donald Trump over player protests during the national anthem.

The problems are taking a heavy toll. Adults who report following the NFL closely has dropped 9% since 2014, the poll finds. More alarming for the league, however, is the makeup of the people moving away from the NFL in large numbers: Just 51% of men aged 18 to 49 say they follow the NFL closely, down from 75% four years ago. The poll did not ask respondents why their interest changed. The Journal/NBC News poll interviewed 900 adults from Jan. 13-17. The margin of error for the full sample was plus or minus 3.27 percentage points.

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“You watch the guys playing college ball, and I feel like they are trying a lot harder and you get a better game,” said Tim Muzzy, 29, from Upstate New York. “I don’t hear the talk about [pro] football as much as I used to.”

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?”

The NFL declined to comment.

The drop offs, according to the poll, also crossed political lines. Base Democrats who follow the league closely fell by 16 points versus four years ago, while it was 14 points for base Republicans.

This comes after a season in which the NFL drew the White House’s ire because of player protests during the national anthem and the league’s response. The protests began in 2016 when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players knelt, sat and demonstrated in different forms to call attention to social issues. The protests took on new life in September, when President Trump assailed the players who protested, referring to a hypothetical protester as a “son of a bitch.”

Trump’s comments prompted more players than ever to take a knee during the anthem, as the movement turned into a direct response to the president’s criticisms. Later, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of a game when players took a knee, while others who viewed it as unpatriotic called for a rule change to mandate that players stand.

NFL owners ultimately did not make a rule change. On Wednesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell deflected a question about whether the NFL would revisit the issue after the Super Bowl, saying, “I don’t know what we’ll consider in the offseason.”

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“You can’t have this very specific movement and look at the last year and say all that protest and kneeling stuff didn’t have an impact,” Roberts said. “It really has, and it really has affected the viewership.”

Explanations for the NFL’s ratings decline—a drop of 9.7% this regular season after an 8% fall a year ago, according to Nielsen—have been varied. Media executives have pointed to overexposure and football games on Thursday as a potential problem, though Fox this week won the rights to “Thursday Night Football” with a bid that was a big increase over the league’s previous agreements.

League executives have pointed to a changing media environment in which prime-time ratings have dropped across the board, and the NFL has noted that it still had 33 of the top 50 most-viewed shows in 2017. On Thursday, representatives of the NFL Players Association disputed the notion that the anthem protests have been a primary factor driving viewers away.

Beyond the scope of the NFL, the poll also revealed that parents are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of their kids playing football, prompted by a surge in information about the dangers of head injuries. In 2014, 40% of mothers said they would encourage their child to play a sport other than football due to concerns about concussions. That figure has now climbed to 53%. Democrats, the poll found, expressed these concerns with head injuries more frequently than Republicans.

Chaka Fobbs, a 41-year-old mother of two boys who said she would encourage her kids to play a sport other than football, said her feeling was rooted in “how the football players were sustaining traumatic brain injuries.”

“I would just steer away from it,” she said. “It’s a health concern.”

Even people without kids in their households appear to harbor doubts about football, with 49% saying they would encourage their child to play another sport, up from 43% in 2014. Roberts described this data as “a flashing yellow light,” since robust youth participation in a sport typically correlates with a larger adult fan base.

“When participation erodes, the likelihood of a kid becoming a big fan doesn’t necessarily go away, but it lessens,” said NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, whose network will broadcast Super Bowl LII.

The NFL in recent years has grappled with rule changes in an effort to make the game safer without removing the essence of the sport, which inherently includes a degree of violence.

Among people who follow the NFL, 47% say the NFL has taken meaningful action to reduce and prevent concussions, down from 59% in 2014. Now, 32% say the NFL hasn’t taken meaningful action, versus 21% in 2014. (The rest say they don’t know.)

“I don’t think this is a death knell by any means,” Roberts said. “It’s certainly disturbing data for the NFL, but it’s nothing they can’t recover from.”

Write to Jared Diamond at jared.diamond@wsj.com and Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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