This is the NFL’s annual turn on the catwalk, the week where the league touts itself as the apex predator of American culture. Despite a year that saw some of the most tumultuous and existential threats in the league’s history, the NFL can still hold claim to the top of the American sports pyramid.
But a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that clouds are gathering on the horizon for the NFL. Support among the NFL’s hardcore fans is declining, particularly among groups that make up the majority of President Trump’s base, not a surprise given the president’s attacks on the league earlier this season. At the same time, and more ominously for the league’s long-term future, the number of parents who are steering their children away from football is increasing.
The survey found that 49 percent of respondents say they follow the NFL closely, a decline of 9 points since 2014. The sharpest decline came from men, down from 69 percent in 2014 to 50 percent today. White fans saw a decline of 12 points from 59 percent to 47 percent. Worth noting: there was no decline whatsoever among female fans, and black and Hispanic fans showed slightly more interest over 2014.
Nearly half of the survey’s respondents — 48 percent — said they would encourage a child who wanted to play football to take up a different sport because of concussion concerns. The bubbling undercurrent about football’s future holds that the sport’s growth rests in the hands of America’s moms — and according to this poll, mothers have turned against the NFL, with 53 percent against football, up from 40 percent just four years ago.
The poll also indicates that only 33 percent of Americans think the league has taken meaningful steps to reduce or prevent concussions, a figure that’s down 8 points from 2014. On the other side of the question, 28 percent said the NFL has taken no meaningful action, up 8 points from 2014.
The poll was conducted from Jan. 13-17, surveying 900 adults with a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.
NFL advocates can spin this by noting that as entertainment options proliferate, it’s natural that everyone’s market share will decline, and the largest slice of a smaller pie is still the largest slice. The NFL remains the biggest single draw on television, and just signed a $3 billion-plus deal to broadcast Thursday night games on Fox.
Even so, nothing lasts forever. The NFL was slow to react to the threat of concussions; if it’s slow to react to the threat of declining interest, well … the NBA is always lurking.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.