SAN FRANCISCO (NEXSTAR) — It looks like many Americans are picking their political team over their local NFL team this season.
The National Football League had seen ratings rise in 2018 and 2019, but new data from the media analysis firm Comscore shows a steep drop in viewership in 2020 compared to a year ago, especially with independent and right-leaning voters.
Audience numbers have slipped across most major professional sports this season, but the reasons remain somewhat unclear. Marist poll results on the topic earlier this week failed to pin fully pin the rating decline on any of the most common theories, which include frustration with political activism by athletes, dissatisfaction with COVID protocol changes, and distractions caused by national politics. Still, the findings suggest some element of politics may be at play.
Comscore analysis of the first three weeks of the season shows viewership among all households dropping about five percent compared to last season, but numbers among self-identified Democrats have remained relatively steady over those weeks, declining only during week two relative to a year ago. The same is not true in red states.
“Looking at Republican Voters, Comscore saw an 11% decline in Week 1; a 17% decline in Week 2; and an 8% decline in Week 3 when comparing year-over-year,” company officials wrote in a press release.
The survey also found as many as nine percent of independents and 10 percent of unregistered voters taking a pass when compared to last year.
Comscore offered no theories as to why viewership has shifted along party lines, but the league has become more of a political football (pun intended) since Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.
President Donald Trump and conservative pundits criticized Kaepernick – who was trying to raise awareness about police brutality against Black Americans – and accused him of disrespecting the flag.
At the time the league showed little support for the 49er quarterback but the commissioner has since expressed remorse for “not listening” sooner. Kaepernick has not played in the league since that season, and he previously sued the league over perceived efforts to blacklist him.
The numbers from Marist show that activism has been a turn off for some Republicans, with 70 percent saying it will make them less likely to watch events. Democrats and independents are far more likely to say protests have no impact on their viewing.
Still, 46% of fans across the spectrum say they are spending less time watching sports, and many tell Marist it’s simply a time management issue during the pandemic.
“There was an assumption that once sports returned, sports fans would leap at the opportunity to watch more,” Jane McManus of Marist said in a company summary of the findings. “But what ratings and the results of this poll are telling us, is that fans may have other concerns at the moment.”