Roger Goodell and his merry band of team owners have seen this show already: A new football season beginning, a nation consumed by politics, and players making controversial gestures about racial injustice. It happened first in 2017 and it caused a brutal downturn in fan sentiment and ratings. 

Look at the CivicScience tracking data about NFL fandom in 2017. Yikes.

Now, it’s déjà vu, all over again. The 2020 season kicked off in the middle of a nationwide political obsession, along with all the tribal sensitivities that come with it. League-wide player protests and statements of unity have yet again riled a large segment of the NFL fan base. Fan sentiment and week-one ratings have noticeably declined. 

Look at the same CivicScience tracking data since the NFL draft in May. Yikes again.

A Passing Storm

This time around is different, however, in many ways. A global pandemic hangs over NFL Nation like a cloud. There were no preseason games, no fans (hardly) in the stadiums. Just weeks ago, there was widespread doubt that a season would even happen. Swaths of people still don’t believe it should. 

Whether it’s solely because of fan displeasure over the politicization of the NFL or a cocktail of COVID-related consequences, Goodell & Company could be in for a bumpy season. 

But I wouldn’t worry about it long-term.  

The Football Rebound     

A funny thing happened on the other side of that rocky 2017 season. Take one more look at the CivicScience tracking data, now spanned across the past 5 years:

After reaching unprecedented lows in fan attention during the fall of 2017, the league bounced back with a vengeance. A record 60% of Americans aged 13+ said they were following the league at least somewhat closely by the end of the 2018 season. Even after falling slightly last year, the numbers still peaked at a second-best 58% by the Super Bowl.

That’s not even the rosiest part of the story for the NFL. Not only did the league become more popular after that 2017 downturn, as disgruntled right-leaning fans migrated back – the fan base actually got younger.

The Play for Gen Z

Before the 2017 NFL season kicked off, younger fans were cooling on the NFL – we even published a study at the time entitled The NFL’s Young Person Problem. Declining participation in youth football due to head injury fears, superior product marketing by the NBA and other sports, and a general move away from linear TV was turning kids’ attention elsewhere. According to CivicScience data, consumers under the age of 25 represented just 15% of all NFL fans in 2016. Fifty-four percent of fans were 45 or older.

But by the time the league hit that post-rebound high in January of 2019, sub-25 consumers climbed to 17% of the fanbase. The 45+ crowd fell to 51%. Those may not seem like earth-shattering numbers, but, given the trends prior to 2017, they represent an important sea change. More young fans began following the NFL more closely.

As the league braces for another wave of disgruntled older and more politically-conservative fans, the stakes with Gen Z are even higher. Between March and July of this year, the number of Gen Z adults who identify themselves as politically Liberal jumped a whopping 54%. They not only expect activism from the brands and celebrities they follow – their views are moving increasingly farther Left.

The COVID Effect

It’s difficult to measure the impact of the pandemic on NFL fandom, independent of the player protest controversies. It makes logical sense that people were following the league less to begin with, either because of the lack of preseason games (and hype) or simply because people have been so distracted by more important things. For example, people who have lost their jobs due to COVID are 18% less likely to be following the NFL right now compared to those who are working as usual.

The End Game

Although headwinds galore are gusting toward the NFL right now (we didn’t even talk about cord-cutting), there’s no doubt that the political landscape and player protests will cause the league some agony. However, it’s a safe bet the backlash will not only be temporary – as older fans leave and eventually return – it could position the NFL for even more expansion among a younger and larger segment in the future.

At least that’s how it played out last time.