Super Bowl Sunday: NFL Popularity Poll Shows Surprising Results

NFL core demographic is going elsewhere according to poll
Mark Humphrey / AP Images

The National Football League has lost a significant chunk of its market share this season, but the advertisers who paid a reported $5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl LII commercial today obviously hope that the big game draws its traditional big audience on what has become an unofficial national holiday. Typically, the Super Bowl is the most-watched live TV event of the year in the fragmented entertainment universe.

The New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, AFC and NFC champions respectively, meet today for a 6:30 p.m. Eastern time Super Bowl Sunday kickoff at U.S. Bank Stadium, a domed structure, in Minneapolis.

[See Update below]

Once considered America’s most popular spectator sport and essentially an ATM machine for owners, players, television networks, and others in the commerce stream, NFL regular season ratings were down 10 percent, fell 13 percent on Wild Card weekend, 16 percent for the divisional round, and eight percent for the conference championship games.

Against the backdrop, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of 900 adults compiled in mid-January suggests that the league is apparently losing ground with its key demographic, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“[The NFL’s] core audience is losing interest rapidly, a potential threat to the league’s dominant role in American culture…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 drop offs, according to the poll, also crossed political lines.”

WSJ/NBC polls suggests NFL losing core audience
  Charlie Neibergall / AP Images

For some reason, pollsters didn’t ask the respondents why they were losing interest. Over this season, various reasons have been offered for the disappearing NFL fan, however, at least in terms of TV watching. These include oversaturation of games being telecast, non-competitive games, referees blowing calls that are game-changers, poor quality of play (especially in the quarterback position), player injuries, cord-cutting consumers gravitating toward Netflix and other forms of streaming entertainment instead of traditional TV, and the national anthem protests. It also seems that that the AFC is otherwise so weak, and Brady and co. are so strong, that the Pats have a glide path to the post-season every year.

An ancillary factor perhaps is that families are more unenthusiastic about their children participating on the gridiron because of the concussion issue.

“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,” the WSJ added.

One of the WSJ/NBC News pollsters made this observation about the purported erosion in the NFL core male audience.

“If I’m the NFL I’m freaking out about that a little bit. They are the very core of the football-viewing audience. If they’re retreating, then who’s left?”

Although many sports analysts have downplayed the impact of dissatisfaction with the national protests, anecdotal evidence on social media and elsewhere, as well various opinion polls, suggests at least a portion of the NFL fan base has become alienated from the league and will no longer watch the games because some players kneeled during the Star-Spangled Banner as a form of political activism. Owing to various factors, many games have been played to half-empty stadiums as well. President Trump has famously taken the NFL to task for the anthem protests and at one point reignited the controversy.

Gambling and fantasy football have been significant elements in the NFL’s popularity heretofore.

Reacting to the WSJ/NBC results, the Washington Post offered this assessment.

“So the results of the poll, which was taken at the end of what has been a trying season for the league, perhaps shouldn’t be all that surprising. Nevertheless, it’s another data point in what is becoming a growing collection of bad news for the NFL.”

The bad news did not discourage Fox Sports, however, from entering into a deal last week to pay the NFL $3 billion-plus for the telecast rights to NFL Thursday Night Football over the next five years.

For what it’s worth, according to Joe Concha, the media reporter for The Hill, “not one of the 636 players on the 12 playoff teams have kneeled during any of the 10 playoff games thus far. All have stood.”

Based on TV ratings for this evening’s Super Bowl at least, data will soon become available that may indicate whether the NFL can reverse the current trend and regain its core young male audience rather than fumble it away.

Update: In the context of viewership, the action-packed Super Bowl 52 matchup in which the Eagles upset the Patriots by a score of 41-33 nonetheless turned out to be the lowest-rated NFL championship game since 2009, and a seven percent year-over-year drop in the audience. With about 103 million viewers, “The final TV results also marked the first time in five years that the Super Bowl failed to break the 111 million viewer mark,” AdAge noted.