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Despite NFL’s Woes, Football Remains America’s Most Dominant Sport

Report also shows Americans have mixed views about transgender students participating in high school sports

WASHINGTON, DC (January 25, 2018)—Despite concerns over player safety, player protests, and declining ratings, PRRI’s annual survey of sports and society finds that football remains Americans’ favorite sport to watch. The survey also examines Americans’ attitudes towards athletics issues from youth sports to professional leagues, including participation of transgender athletes in high school sports.

Nearly four in ten (38 percent) Americans—and roughly equal numbers of men (39 percent) and women (37 percent)—prefer to watch football, almost the same number as baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey, and auto racing combined (41 percent). Americans’ preference for football is virtually unchanged since 2014, when 39 percent of the public said football was their favorite sport to watch.

The Super Bowl’s popularity is the clearest evidence of the NFL’s prominence. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) say they are likely to watch the Super Bowl, including 47 percent who say they are very likely to tune in. The only sporting event comparable to the Super Bowl is the Winter Olympics. Sixty-eight percent of Americans plan to watch the 2018 Winter Olympics, although fewer (36 percent) report that they are very likely to watch the games. Only one in three (33 percent) Americans plan to watch this summer’s World Cup.

“Although the NFL has faced its share of controversy this year, no single game captures more of the public’s attention than the Super Bowl,” says PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones. “Football has no competition for the country’s favorite sport, something that has been true for the past five years.”

The public has mixed views about whether transgender high school students should be allowed to participate in athletics with students of the gender with which they identify. Sixty-one percent of Americans say a transgender student who identifies as male, but was listed as female on their birth certificate, should be allowed to compete with other male students. However, only 50 percent of Americans say a transgender student who identifies as female, but was listed as male on their birth certificate, should be allowed to compete with other female students. Forty-three percent are opposed.

Notably, while Democrats and Republicans disagree sharply on this issue, their views do not change with respect to the transgender student’s gender identity. Nearly identical numbers of Democrats support allowing male (74 percent) and female (73 percent) transgender students to participate in high school sports. Relatively few Republicans support male (37 percent) or female (30 percent) transgender students’ participation. While more than six in ten (63 percent) independents say that a transgender student who was listed as female at birth, but who identifies as male, should be allowed to participate in sports with other male students, only 46 percent say the same of transgender female students.

Despite ongoing concern about the safety of football, few Americans say they would prohibit their son from playing the game. Seventy-one percent of Americans say they would allow their son to play competitive football. More than one in four (27 percent) say they would not. This support differs by race and ethnicity. Nearly one-third (32 percent) of white Americans say they would not allow it, compared to 22 percent of black and 13 percent of Hispanic Americans. There is an education gap among whites: 41 percent of whites with a college degree say they would not allow their son to play football.

“Although there is wide partisan disagreement about whether professional athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem, most Americans agree on what the protests are about,” says PRRI Research Director Dan Cox. “About two-thirds of the public recognize that professional athletes were kneeling to bring attention to the issue of police treatment of African Americans.”

Americans are largely united in their belief that professional athletes should be required to stand during the national anthem. Six in ten (60 percent) Americans agree that they should be required to stand while the anthem is being played, with just 36 percent opposed to this requirement. There is notable disagreement across generations on this question. Seventy-two percent of seniors support a requirement to stand, compared to just 44 percent of young adults.

These disagreements exist in spite of the fact that the athletes’ reason for kneeling is generally understood by the public. Roughly two-thirds (65 percent) of the public identify police violence against African Americans as the original motivation for the protests. Only 13 percent say the protests are a response to President Trump’s election. Eight percent say protests are a reaction to the NFL’s poor treatment of players.

Most Americans believe colleges and universities are spending too much on athletics. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) Americans agree that colleges are spending too much money on athletics at the expense of academics. Just 35 percent of Americans disagree.

There is no double standard in views about the benefits of playing sports for young men and women. Americans generally view competitive sports as important for the physical and emotional development of young men (83 percent) and women (85 percent). This view holds across gender lines. Roughly eight in ten women and men believe competitive sports are important for young men and women’s development.

The survey was designed and conducted by PRRI, and made possible by a generous grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Results of the survey were based on bilingual (Spanish and English) RDD telephone interviews conducted between January 17, 2018 and January 21, 2018 by professional interviewers under the direction of SSRS. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 1,010 adults 18 years of age or older living in the United States (605 respondents were interviewed on a cell phone). The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.6 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.4.

About PRRI:
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.