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College football is now almost as popular as professional football in the US, finds Gallup in newly-released survey results. The study indicates that there’s been a substantial decline over the past 5 years in the number of pro football fans, down from 67% to 57% of the adult population. Although Gallup doesn’t conduct this study every year, the last time it registered popularity that low was in 2000 (54%).

The numbers are generally in line with previous research: in 2011, AdWeek and the Harris Poll found that two-thirds of US adults watched the NFL.

By comparison, college football fandom has seen a slight increase over the past 5 years, per Gallup, up 2% points to 56% counting themselves as fans.

As with professional football, Olympics sports has experienced a large decline in popularity, down from three-quarters saying they’re fans in 2012 to 63% this year. Some of that drop could be attributable to comparing an Olympic year (2012) with an off-year (2017).

The only other sport for which the majority of Americans is a fan is professional baseball (51%).

Unlike in football, where the college game is rising as the professional league falls, basketball is seeing the opposite trend. Four in 10 adults now say they’re fans of professional basketball, just ahead of the 38% who are fans of college basketball. That flips the script from 2012, when more were fans of the college (40%) than professional (37%) version.

Meanwhile, fewer than one-third are fans of auto racing (32%), professional ice hockey (28%) and professional soccer (28%), though each of those has enjoyed an increase in popularity in recent years. It remains to be seen what impact the US’ failure to qualify for the World Cup of soccer will have on its popularity…

Professional Football’s Decline in Fan Base Stretches Across All Groups

Without delving into political issues, there’s obviously a political element to pro football’s popularity at the moment, and that is reflected to some degree in the results. Republicans have turned away from the league the most, with just 55% now saying they’re fans, down from 70% in 2012. As a result, college football now has a stronger Republican fan base (64%) than professional football.

By comparison, the share of Democrats who are pro football fans has remained largely steady, down just 3% points to 66%.

Even so, the decline is true across political leanings, age groups, genders, races and ethnicities, and education levels, suggesting that it’s more than anthem protests putting a dent in pro football’s popularity. What would that be? Off-field issues such as domestic issues, as well as the effect of playing football on the brain. Both problems have not been perceived to have been handled well by the league…

Looking at pro football’s fan base among various demographic groups, the report indicates that:

  • 62% of men are fans, down from 75% in 2012;
  • 52% of women are fans, down from 60%;
  • 66% of 18-29-year-olds are fans, steady from 67% in 2012;
  • 52% of 50-64-year-olds are fans, a big decline from 68% in 2012;
  • 52% of college graduates and 54% of postgraduates are fans, marking large drops from 71% and 70%, respectively, in 2012.

On an encouraging note for the league, youth are the biggest fans – and don’t seem to have dropped off in recent years.

Why does it all matter for marketers? Well, the Super Bowl is the biggest advertising event of the year, so the audience matters. Moreover, football programming on TV traditionally garners high ratings and the highest advertising costs – so ratings drops have consequences for advertisers.

Gallup’s analysts point out that professional football experienced similar drops in popularity during the 1994-95 labor strike and the steroid issues that arose in the 2000s, but was able to regain its fan base. It remains to be seen if professional football can recover in the same way. The concussion issue, for one, seems as though it won’t be going away…

About the Data: The results are based on telephone interviews conducted Oct. 10-11, 2017, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 1,012 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

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