Partisan Politics: Football’s Viewership Problem

Football has a Viewership Problem, What is Causing It?

[This is Part 1 of a 3 Part examination on why football viewership has declined this season]

Football viewership has taken a turn this year, both the NFL and college football have reported lower viewership this season. College football has even seen ten-year lows in some of their strongest packages. What could be the reason for this sudden down turn? Is it a season anomaly or a trend? I have identified three reasons for this decline. Today we will take on my first hypothesis, politics.

It would be foolish to discard the political climate of America right now. I believe football viewership has the most political parity of all the major sports, in other words I believe it brings in equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Basketball, in contrast, brings in a more Democrat-leaning audience. Hockey and NASCAR, Republican. Football also gets the most coverage from the media, from local coverage, the 24-hour sporting news to “hard” news stations. This year of political upheaval has made its way into sports like flood water into a kitchen and in no more obvious a way than the politically neutral football.

The number one reason comes down to one man, Colin Kaepernick. In Week 8 of the 2015 NFL season, Kaepernick lost his job as the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers after losing to St. Louis 27-6. Kaepernick had started in the Super Bowl in 2012 but was now the back-up on a 5-11 team. By the first game of the 2016 season, Kaepernick stood- or rather- knelt for a movement.

The depth by which Kaepernick has penetrated a certain aspect of American culture is so deep that as I write this article in 2018, Kaepernick is the main topic of an article by Esquire as well as the feature of an article humbly called, “2017’s Most Impactful Player was Colin Kaepernick” in the US edition of the Guardian. Kaepernick makes the news cycle every week on ESPN, NBC Sports and all other major sports news networks. Kaepernick, a man who vocally did not vote in the 2016 election, was honored as TIME Magazine’s Citizen of the Year. Sports Illustrated awarded him the Muhammad Ali Award. Kaepernick and his opinions are deeply divisive. What Kaepernick has come to represent over the past two years is political. Yet to many that disseminate the news he is the most important part of the 2017 NFL Season. In other words, political and NFL news are the same in the eyes of the gatekeepers of information.

By taking a deeper look at how politics in sports has been one sided is to look at the Esquire Magazine article that was recently published. Titled, “Pro Athletes Found Their Voice This Year,” here are the athlete’s Esquire was referring to. There was Lindsey Vonn who said she would not be representing the President of the United States at the Olympics. There was the WNBA refusing to be seen during the national anthem. It was Greg Popovich’s rant against Donald Trump. But of course, the crowning moment of athletes finding their voice was the kneeling in opposition to, again, President Donald Trump. There is one commonality to “The Voice” these athletes gained, it was all liberal in its leaning and mainly in opposition to the Republican President of the United Sates.

Let me be clear, I am not saying these voices should be silenced. What I’m saying is that making sports political from one angle is bad for sports. Sports ought to be a unifier in our culture. For years, the NFL and College Football was that. It unified the South and the North. It brought the urban and the rural together. But starting with Colin Kaepernick going all the way up to our President it has become a platform of polarization. The sports coverage has only praised one side of the political aisle. There was not praise for Tom Brady deference for Candidate Donald Trump last season. Actually, there was criticism and a cry of outrage. What about Benjamin Watson’s voice, the Baltimore Raven’s Tight End has repeatedly criticized Planned Parenthood and abortion? Is his voice not loud enough, or not saying the right things?

When the national media defines the countries most popular sport by just one political viewpoint its going to turn people off. It will turn off the conservatives and it will bother the independents. I think it is fair to say that this trend of shunting Republican viewership by promoting only Liberal causes could be a reason for the decline in football viewership.

A study of ESPN’s viewership has shown that during the 2016 election, ESPN networks had as much as a 28-point swing of Republican viewership leaving their ranks. Republicans left ESPN in droves, could they have done it to all of football? ESPN and ABC are one of the major channels to watch College Football. Could those leaving a channel for political bias be also leaving an entire sport?

The best example that struck home to me was a conversation I had with my Father-in-Law. He was relating a discussion he and his former co-worker had about Donald Trump and the NFL. She told him that she hated President Donald Trump so much she was choosing to watch the NFL, even though she did not like football. In her mind, watching the NFL was a form of political protest.  If this is true, how many others were simply choosing to turn it off?

I am not convinced this is the sole reason for footballs decline in viewership, yet, I think it is foolish to discard it as most of the sports media have.


    • Thanks Jim! I put a lot of time in trying to put together a complete picture of the issue. Unfortunately I think there are very few doing the same thing. Next one will be out on Monday!


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