By Harry Enten, CNN
Almost everything in our world today is divided along political lines. Whether it’s something as important as a life-saving vaccine or something as simple – and you’d think that would be non-partisan – like the television programs that people watch or the jeans that people wear, everything seems to be polarized along partisan lines.
That’s what sets the NFL apart. While the NFL should perhaps worry about younger fans, football is by far the most popular sport in America. It is a sport whose popularity transcends political and racial divides.
Check out the ratings for the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 16. More than 41 million people on average tuned in to the game, while 50 million watched the Cowboys lose in one of the most excruciating play calls I can remember. . It was, of course, only a first round elimination match.
To put that 41 million into perspective, the highest-rated non-football TV show in 2021 drew just under 34 million. Keep in mind this program – the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris – aired on more than a dozen channels.
And while most televisions struggle to keep viewers in the age of streaming, the NFL actually gained viewers this year. During the year 2021, 75 of the top 100 programs were NFL games.
But it’s not just a matter of TV audience, it’s a matter of broader interest.
The NFL is king in the United States
A 2021 Ipsos poll asked American adults if they were a fan of a sport or not. A majority (51%) said they were a fan of professional football.
No other sport (professional baseball, professional basketball, professional hockey, professional football, college basketball or college football) even crossed the 40% mark. In fact, only professional baseball and college football exceeded 30%.
While different pollsters have found different levels of support for professional football – depending on the wording of the questions among other factors – it’s the highest sport in any poll.
Moreover, there is no indication that the popularity of professional football has declined when examining the Ipsos polls.
In 2007, the same 51% of American adults said they were professional football fans.
When you dig deeper, you can see why the NFL is doing so well: it’s popular across the political spectrum. Among Democrats, 51% said they were NFL fans. Among the Republicans, it was 50%. A majority (55%) of independents indicated that they were NFL fans.
You can see the same when you look at Google searches. The NFL is not only the number one most searched league in America, but there is no statistically significant relationship with the level of search interest by state and how that state voted in the 2020 election. .
In other words, state Democrat Joe Biden has won as many NFL searches as state Republican Donald Trump has won. This is not the case for any other major sports league in America: MLB, MLS, NBA or NHL.
That may come as a surprise given what’s happened over the past five years between Trump and the NFL.
Trump blasted the NFL in 2017 after players knelt during the national anthem. In 2020, Trump and his allies sued the league again after more players took a knee in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
NFL leaders supported the protests in 2020, while they didn’t in 2017. Perhaps they realized that Trump ultimately didn’t have much of an impact.
Indeed, just like today, at least 50% of Democrats and Republicans were NFL fans in the 2007 Ipsos poll.
Racial divide in NFL fandom?
Nor does it appear to be more racially divided among NFL fans than before 2017.
In the Ipsos poll, 51% of white adults said they were NFL fans, which is the same as the overall figure. Black adults were somewhat more likely to be NFL fans at 62%, although in the grand scheme this is a much smaller racial divide than what we see on many issues in America . For example, black adults were about 40 points more likely to say they were NBA fans than white adults.
When Ipsos asked about professional football fandom in 2007, 54% of white adults said they were NFL fans. That’s well within the margin of error of what the 2021 Ipsos poll found.
If there’s one warning sign for the NFL, it’s what young people think of the league. Fears about concussions may play a role in the fact that about 100,000 fewer high school students were playing football at the end of the 2010s than at the start of the decade.
Soccer remains a top sport for high school students, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, but its edge over other sports is shrinking.
Consider soccer, which is the world’s favorite sport. Even with studies showing that people should fear football concussions, the sport has been gaining ground over football.
Men’s high school soccer saw an increase in attendance of almost 70,000 during the 2010s. Women’s soccer saw an increase of 40,000 in attendance over this period.
That still left football with just over a million high school participants, compared to about 459,000 boys and 394,000 girls (for a total of about 850,000) playing football. That means the gap between high school soccer and football players fell from about 360,000 to about 155,000 over the decade.
There are signs it’s leaking into the pro sports fandom.
A majority of adults under 30 (56%) in the Ipsos poll said they weren’t NFL fans. That was 15 points higher than people aged 70 and over, of whom only 41% said they weren’t a fan.
Professional football, on the other hand, saw the percentage of fans increase by double digits during the 2010s in Gallup polls.
That said, the problems of football should not be overstated. It remains by far the most popular American sport. And even though a sport like soccer is gaining traction, American adults are about 30 points more likely to be soccer fans than soccer fans in polls.
Football – and the NFL – doesn’t seem in danger of being overtaken by another sport in popularity anytime soon.
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