Is it a passing storm or an existential problem? That’s a key question for the NFL as it grapples with the mushrooming controversy of players kneeling in protest during the national anthem, and President Donald Trump’s persistent bashing of the kneelers.
A new Yahoo Finance poll suggests the NFL has an enduring problem on its hands. Nearly 62% of 9,056 respondents told us they plan to watch less pro football in response to the anthem controversy. Thirty-six percent said they plan to buy less NFL merchandise, and 32% have chosen not to attend a game they would otherwise have gone to. Those findings all have financial implications for the NFL and its 32 team owners.
We wanted to limit our survey, conducted online via SurveyMonkey from Sept. 28-29, to people who patronize the NFL, and exclude people who have an opinion but don’t watch football. So we only counted answers from people who describe themselves as pro football fans. Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they watch at least one game per week, with 46% of those saying they watch more than two games.
(Here are the full survey results. The number of responses varies from question to question because some respondents skipped questions or were directed further down the survey based on answers they gave. A note about the results: In Question 9, 80% of respondents said they plan to watch less football on TV. But that’s only among people who answered yes to Question 8, asking if they have changed their behavior. When including the people who answered no to Question 8, the portion saying they plan to watch less football drops to 62%.)
The NFL’s anthem controversy is becoming one of the most divisive social issues in recent years, with Trump’s comments fanning the flames. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kicked off the protests last year, when he began kneeling during the anthem to protest police brutality. A few other players followed his lead, but the kneelers were a sideshow and football was mostly about football.
That changed on Sept. 22, when Trump gave a fiery speech in Alabama blasting the kneelers. He described Kaepernick, without mentioning him by name, as a “son of a bitch” and called on NFL owners to fire any player who kneels during the anthem. Trump has kept up his crusade since then, mostly on Twitter, provoking many players to kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick. Owners, meanwhile, have been struggling to keep fans happy without politicizing what, for most, is a form of entertainment.
The issue divides fans at least as much as it divides players. In a recent Seton Hall Poll, 84% of respondents said they support the players’ right to protest. But only 35% said kneeling during the anthem was the right way to do it. In the Yahoo Finance survey, we asked specifically if people felt it was wrong for players to kneel during the anthem. Seventy-seven percent said yes, 20% said no and just 2% said they weren’t sure. (The numbers don’t add to 100 because of rounding.)
In our survey, we wanted to suss out whether the anthem flap could deal a lasting financial hit to the NFL. The answers suggest it could. When we asked fans if the controversy would make them more or less supportive of the NFL, 71% said less and only 15% said more. Of those who said they are now less supportive, 74% said their change of heart was permanent, and only 3% said they felt it was temporary. Public attitudes are fickle, and it’s entirely possible boredom with the issue — or terrifically exciting football — could make people forget before long. The NFL, after all, has faced other disturbing issues that didn’t seem to dent its popularity.
We promoted our survey on the Yahoo Finance home page, and on our Twitter and Facebook accounts. So responses reflect the characteristics of the Yahoo Finance audience, which skews more toward wealthier white males than the broader population.
But that may actually be worse news for the NFL, especially since a startling majority of respondents in our survey show a striking disregard for the future of the league. When asked their view if the anthem flap were to cause the NFL lasting harm, 47% said they’d be pleased and 30% said they wouldn’t care. Only 10% said it would bother them. For football fans, it once seemed hard to imagine life in America without the NFL. Some fans seem to be rethinking that.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman