Has the NFL broken itself over politics as the Super Bowl arrives?

The NFL somehow managed to play every one of its scheduled games this year, though a few of them had to be delayed or relocated. That’s fairly impressive when you consider all of the complications of the plague. But now that Super Bowl Sunday is upon us, will viewers be returning in droves for what is typically one of the highest-rated television events of the year? Not all of them, at least according to a new poll released this week by Morning Consult. The drop in anticipated viewership is being seen more among Republicans than Democrats and it’s at least partly due to the league’s embrace of left-winig political ideology and social just mantras.

Despite both Super Bowl LV contenders hailing from states that backed Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady’s ties to No. 45, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to watch Sunday’s game, according to pregame polling data.

It’s the latest sign that, after years of regaining their affection, the NFL has once again fallen out of favor with the party of Lincoln.

In a Morning Consult poll conducted Jan. 25-26, 59 percent of Republicans said they were likely to tune in this weekend, 10 percentage points less than the 69 percent of Democrats who said they expected to watch. The gap in expected viewership this year is far larger than prior to each of the past two Super Bowls and comes in the wake of a season during which members of the GOP turned on the league due to its embrace of social justice activism.

I hadn’t really noticed this trend previously, but it seems that more Democrats have planned to watch the big game than Republicans for several years now. But the gap has historically been smaller. It was only four percent in 2020 and three percent in 2019. We can’t blame this one on the novel coronavirus, though. If anything, Americans have been watching considerably more television during the lockdown. Netflix, in particular, has really benefitted from a literally captive audience across the country.

At first, I wondered if this might not be a question of which specific teams are playing. People are always more excited to watch when their home team is in the game. I know that I rarely watch any games that the Jets aren’t in. If the teams come from one of the biggest media markets, particularly in New York, California, Florida and Texas, overall viewership should see a bump. That’s not the case this year, so perhaps that’s contributing to these numbers a bit, but clearly not enough to account for the total gap that the poll revealed.

As the Morning Consult report notes, the league’s favorability rating really took a nosedive in early 2017. Probably not coincidentally, that was the time when Donald Trump was taking office and blasting the league on social media over protests taking place during the National Anthem. The NFL’s net favorability among Republicans at that point dropped to ten percent and their ratings were down across the board. But over the next few years, it seemed like the circus had moved on to the Next Big Thing and football slowly began going back to being about football.

By the time the pandemic hit, the NFL’s favorability ratings were back up to where they were in 2016. But now, just as the season is drawing to an end, they’ve slipped again, particularly among Republicans and conservatives.

Can anyone honestly say they’re surprised? This was always a lose-lose game for the NFL. If they had managed to keep their nose out of politics (as difficult as that might be), they wouldn’t be dealing with this mess. Given the increasingly divided state of the country over all of these questions, the league was inevitably going to end up ticking off roughly half of their viewership no matter which position they took. In that regard, the league is really no different than any other private sector business. When a company does something leading the public to perceive them as being on one side or the other of the political divide, a backlash from the opposition typically ensues. Particularly if you tick off the liberals and socialists, you’ll find yourself being canceled pretty quickly.

Things haven’t gone that far for the NFL yet. It looks like they’ll still draw a decent enough audience tonight. But in terms of rebuilding their brand after several years of political strife, they’re once again heading in the wrong direction.