Published on September 4, 2019 by Matt Yonan and Darin White  

If you follow the news, you might think the NFL has big problems. Recent headlines have pointed to controversy for the league, including negative stories of player and owner conduct, domestic violence, sex trafficking allegations, a concussion epidemic, etc. However, according to national research we recently conducted, NFL fans remain dedicated to the league, despite being disappointed by certain events. For example, even though political activism (the “kneeling controversy”) has dominated the news cycle for the past two seasons and commentators have repeatedly stated that this has alienated fans who thought this type of protest has no place in football, it doesn’t appear to have had a significant impact on overall fan engagement.

  • Specifically, only 10% of people said they were less engaged with the NFL than two seasons ago.

In fact, despite these high-profile stories in the news, engagement has actually gone up in the last two years. Fans we asked primarily attributed their increased engagement to their team’s performance. And, with the number of overtime games played in 2018 (nine games in the season’s first six weeks alone), it seems fans on the edge of their seats can’t look away.

  • 58% of respondents say they are more engaged with NFL teams than two seasons ago, and this number increases to 68% in the Northeast.
    • Of those 58% that were more engaged, 43% indicated that team performance was the driving reason.

Essentially, the League has done a good job keeping games competitive, and when your team is in the hunt, your level of support increases.

  • According to the Chicago Tribune, in 15 of the last 16 seasons, at least one team has won its division after finishing last or tying for last the previous year. And, for nearly three decades, at least four new teams have qualified for the playoffs each year. For example, in 2017 there were eight new qualifiers and seven new qualifiers in 2018.

So, does this increase in engagement mean a corresponding increase in ticket sales and TV ratings? Not necessarily. Measurement around TV ratings often only includes live broadcasts, and we know fans engage in a number of ways beyond this.

  • 26% follow the teams or players on social media more than they did two seasons ago
  • 26% purchase merchandise more than they did two seasons ago
  • 23% watch ancillary programming (i.e., post-game shows) more than they did two seasons ago

Tigris Sponsorship & Marketing, along with the Samford University Center for Sports Analytics, conducted this national survey with a panel of self-reported NFL fans. There were 1,001 responses, with a +/-3% margin of error. This is the first in a three-part series on this research.

January 13, 2019, Chicago Tribune, “The NFL successfully sells parity. So, will it be harder for the Bears to stay on top than it was to go from worst to first?” by Brad Biggs