58% of NFL Viewers Don’t Care About Political Protests In-Game
In the wake of NFL players’ social justice protests, some NFL fans threatened to boycott and quit the league. Despite threats to stop watching, a TheLines survey found that over half of NFL fans don’t change their NFL viewing habits over political protests during games. Some viewers make minor adjustments, like watching less than they used to or being more selective about the teams or games they watch.
Only 6% of NFL fans stopped watching NFL games altogether.
NFL protests can bring attention to pressing social justice issues, as Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem did to protest police brutality and racial injustice. While the Kaepernick protests received the most attention in recent years, domestic violence has long complicated fans’ relationship with the sport they love. A 2022 NPR article quoted one Seahawks fan who struggles with her disappointment in the NFL’s lack of action on domestic violence and the meaning of her fandom:
“It’s really disappointing, but at the same time, I’ve tried to give up the league, and I’ve tried not to watch, and I don’t know…,” she said. “I miss my team, and I miss that aspect of my life. I struggle with it a lot.” She went on to discuss the bond that football creates within her family. “We don’t align politically, but we all align for the Seahawks.”
However, the NFL has still made changes without sustained audience outrage. Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has been accused of sexual misconduct and harassment by more than two dozen women. Only July 31, the New York Times reported on July 31 the NFL has changed its personal conduct policy, expanding the offenses that warrant more serious penalties to include sexual assault “involving threats or coercion” and including “a pattern of conduct” and “offenses that involve planning” as factors that could increase punishment.
Those changes weren’t a result of NFL fans boycotting the league. They were a response to broader cultural revelations and dissatisfaction with the six-game suspension Watson was originally punished with. Today, the NFL also features a player-led social justice page highlighting state bills players have advocated for that address these issues. NFL players have written letters and lobbied for changes to incarceration policies, voting rights and other issues perpetuating disparities among different groups. While player outreach and activism are laudable, many NFL fans likely know as little about player activism off the field as fans know about player activism on the field.
Awareness Of NFL Political Stances Trends Low
NFL viewership could be impacted if its viewers were more aware of the NFL’s shortcomings on social issues. According to our survey, only 30% of respondents were aware of the NFL’s stance on social issues. Thirty-five percent were only somewhat aware and the final 35% weren’t aware at all.
It should be less surprising that only 23% of respondents were very or somewhat likely to stop watching the NFL based on the league’s stances on various social issues. Forty percent were very or somewhat unlikely to stop watching. The remaining 37% were neutral on the issue.
Few NFL Viewers Stop Watching For Long
Even those who claimed to stop watching couldn’t last very long. Of the respondents who stopped watching the NFL, 52% stopped watching for part of the season, and only 15% stopped for one season. Twenty-two percent chose their games more selectively, but only 11% held out on a boycott longer than two years.
That leaves plenty of room for NFL viewers who were outraged by political opinions they disagreed with, like this letter quoted in a 2017 Sports Illustrated article during the height of Kaepernick’s controversy. Kevin Williams, a military veteran with a 24-year career, ended his letter with this:
“…I hate politics. It’s all over social media, television…I can’t even go out anymore without overhearing people having heated political discussion. Football used to provide me an escape from all that crap. Now politics has infiltrated something I used to love. I have been an NFL fan since 1978. I spent every Sunday watching the games. I knew this past Sunday was going to suck, so I went sailing instead. It was nice. Out on the water alone with my thoughts. I think I may have watched my last NFL game.”
This letter represents one segment of NFL boycotters whose decisions to stop watching was more about political fatigue than political conviction. The other featured boycotters were people who found Kaepernick’s protest disrespectful or disagreed with Kaepernick’s positions.
(Among those who boycotted out of political conviction were those who professed to be exhausted by politics only to discuss their political involvement and political reasons for boycotting at length.)
However, these fans didn’t mention whether they complained about political statements they agreed with NFL players voicing political opinions they agreed with during games. A 2023 YouGov poll found that the NFL’s Salute to Service event was the eighth most popular sporting event, above the Winter X games and tying with the National Women’s Soccer League. Support for the military is also a political position, but not one that inspired outrage among the NFL’s most vocal fans. The political outrage is limited to the positions that fans disagree with.
Despite publicized exits, the loudest critics of NFL social justice policies rarely stay away for long, if they manage to eke out a boycott at all.
Most Viewers Don’t Have Their NFL Feelings Hashed Out
Questions that asked about a respondent’s knowledge of or agreement with the NFL’s policies regarding social issues broke down roughly as follows:
- 30% for
- 30% against
- 30% unsure or neutral
- 10% gave whichever non-answer was available
When only a minority of fans are aware of the NFL’s stance on various social issues, the pool of fans that can critique the league with their own viewership is too small.
Almost half as many respondents thought NFL players should remain silent about their politics during a game than outside of it. However, the “politics” is likely limited to social justice issues rather than political statements about healthcare or infrastructure. While some NFL fans want complete silence from the athletes on and off the field, the segment that desires a separation between sports and politics reveals itself in these results.
The Undercounted “I Don’t Knows”
Ambivalence is undercovered in NFL scandals. Even when outrage is appropriate, stories often populate newsfeeds wondering what consequences scandals could have on the NFL.
Advertisers, coaches and other stakeholders have successfully pushed for change. The NFL didn’t embrace the Black Lives Matter movement after Kaepernick’s protests in 2016. However, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the NFL was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.” That statement followed the protests over George Floyd’s murder and renewed outrage from players, coaches and the public at the NFL’s failure to take social justice concerns seriously.
NFL viewership changes don’t seem to have the effects that intense advocacy campaigns do. According to Statista, NFL viewership has fallen from just under 18 million in the 2010/11 season to 16.7 million in the 2022/23 season. There have been spikes in between. The 2016/17 season was 16.5 million and the next season dropped to 15 million, almost the viewership level of the pandemic season.
However, NFL viewership is a gentle downward trend overall, driven more by the loss of the ages 18-49 demographic than the NFL’s botched response to social issues or player protests.
When change comes to the NFL, it comes from the combined pressures of vocal fans and powerful stakeholders within the league. Controversy’s long-term impact on the NFL is negligible, thanks in large part to the fans most disengaged with the NFL’s approach to social issues.
TheLines conducted a Pollfish survey of 1,000 NFL fans. Forty-two percent of the respondents were male, and 58% were female. These were the age demographics:
- 16-17 1.5%
- 18-24 17.1%
- 25-34 24.6%
- 35-44 23.4%
- 45-54 16.4%
- >54 17%
One question was limited to a subset of respondents. Question 6, “How long did you stop watching the NFL for?,” was unavailable to respondents who answered “I never watched the NFL” on Question 5.