Adults who report following the NFL closely has dropped 9% since 2014, the poll finds. Just 51% of men aged 18 to 49 say they follow the NFL closely, down from 75% four years ago.
Ahead of a Super Bowl that caps a tumultuous season, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll depicts a developing nightmare for the National Football League: Its core audience is losing interest rapidly, a potential threat to the league’s dominant role in American culture.
The poll shows that fans are following the sport less closely, even in key demographics, such as young men, that historically propelled the league’s growth. At the same time, parents increasingly want their children to turn away from football amid growing worry about player safety and the league’s efforts to address it.
The drop in interest spans age groups and the political spectrum—painting the picture of a sport that isn’t just experiencing a momentary dip, but a battle against fundamental questions about football’s future that have been building for years.
Sunday night’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Eagles comes at the end of a troublesome season for the league. The best players got hurt. The owners publicly quarreled. The decline in television ratings steepened. And the league became a polarizing political lightning rod, entangled in an imbroglio with President Donald Trump over player protests during the national anthem.
The problems are taking a heavy toll. Adults who report following the NFL closely has dropped 9% since 2014, the poll finds. More alarming for the league, however, is the makeup of the people moving away from the NFL in large numbers: Just 51% of men aged 18 to 49 say they follow the NFL closely, down from 75% four years ago. The poll did not ask respondents why their interest changed. The Journal/NBC News poll interviewed 900 adults from Jan. 13-17. The margin of error for the full sample was plus or minus 3.27 percentage points.
Micah Roberts, a Republican pollster who helped conduct the poll along with Democratic pollster Fred Yang, said that from the NFL’s perspective, this is “absolutely the last group you would want to retreat.”
“If I’m the NFL I’m freaking out about that a little bit,” Roberts said. “They are the very core of the football-viewing audience. If they’re retreating, then who’s left?”