The National Football League has made headlines several times over the last two years, but not, unfortunately, for its game highlights. Numerous controversies have left many fans both disillusioned with the league (as well as the sport of football itself), and there was initial concern that this new criticism would spark a massive drop in viewership.
Although professional football has long been heralded as the most popular spectator sport in America, there was question over whether this would still be the case… until now.
Each year, the Gallup poll compares a select pool of America’s sports fans preference: do they prefer to watch baseball, basketball, football, ice hockey, or soccer? And each year, the winner is clear, and we’ll get to that!
First Things First: How Is Spectator Sport Popularity Calculated?
Gallup (a professional analytical service) has surveyed the American public annually regarding their spectator sport of choice. The survey is conducted via telephone. The survey participant is asked a brief series of questions regarding his or her sport-watching activities and preferences. The total number of survey participants is then analyzed in comparison to the results for each sport, which generates a total percentage for each.
Football Has Been Ranked #1 Since 1972
Baseball may be as American as apple pie, but when it comes to America’s favorite spectator sport, football still reigns supreme. Since 1972, football (hereafter, referred to as the National Football League, or NFL) has dominated the playing field in terms of being the favorite spectator sport of Americans. Baseball was originally America’s preference in terms of spectators from 1937 until 1972.
Many people credit the increased televising of NFL games as a major reason for the sudden surge in popularity, while others contribute the rise in interest to the impressive careers of Hall of Fame players like Joe Montana or Walter Payton. Once football eclipsed baseball in the 1972 Gallup poll, it has ranked first every year from then to the present, with no other sport coming close to eclipsing its popularity.
The NFL Has Strongly Outranked Its Competitors
National League Football has not just dominated America as the preferred spectator sport since 1972; it has virtually crushed its competition. While baseball originally topped football in the polls until then, football has managed to maintain at least 25% of viewer popularity each year, even surging to 43% between the years 2006-2007. While this may not seem like an impressive number at first glance, baseball was only able to attract 21% or less of those surveyed since 1972. While professional baseball popularity has been on a steady decline since then, NFL football has managed to stay consistent in its top ranking over decades. In terms of spectator age ranges, football is the favorite sport of 30% of those between 18-34 years old, 40% of those from 35-54 years old, and 39% of those 55 years and older.
Recent NFL Troubles Have Had Minimal Effect on Its Popularity
Within the last few years, there have been several controversies that have resulted in criticism of the NFL. The recent focus on the devasting effects of permanent brain damage (known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) on players has raised a firestorm of questions regarding the overall safety of the game itself.
There have also been considerable protests regarding domestic and/or sexual assault incidents involving professional football players in recent years. In 2014, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on video punching his wife & dragging her unconscious body from an elevator. In 2016, Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor was accused of raping a dancer in a strip club back room. Though charges were later dropped, the incident brought the issue of professional players and sexual assault to the forefront, generating mass protest and demands for change. There was also public protest demanding the resignation of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Within the past two years, the issue of players opting to take a knee during the performing of the National Anthemwas also a source of indignation for many fans. When 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to sit down during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner to protest the recent killings of African American men by police officers, many fans were outraged by what they deemed to be disrespectful and unpatriotic behavior. NFL viewership actually declined by 10% when Gallup performed an independent poll in October of this year.
Even devout football fans have expressed frustration regarding the behavior of professional players, and the NFL’s popularity definitely took a hit as a result; but it was still not enough of a decline to relinquish football’s number one spot as America’s favorite spectator sport.
NFL Is Still DEFINITELY America’s Favorite Spectator Sport
Despite the ups and downs of recent issues within the NFL, football has been steadfast in preserving the top slot of most popular professional spectator sport. At 37% of all viewers surveyed, football is more popular than baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey combined. No professional sport comes close to competing in terms of drawing fan’s attention. So rest easy, football fans, your favorite sport isn’t slipping from its top spot anytime soon! Football is still America’s favorite spectator sport and is consistently ranked far above any other professional sport.
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