Politicized sports, a knife’s edge – part 2

Photo by Keith Allison. KA Sports Photos

In part 1 of this post, I outlined the costs and benefits of sports activism.  In part 2, I examine data about American’s image of the sport industry.  For the last 2 decades, the sports industry has enjoyed a consistently favorable image.  However, in 2020 that image turned decidedly negative.   

American’s view of sports industry

For the past 2 decades, Gallup asked American’s their views of various businesses and industries.  Year after year, the sports industry produced a strong positive image.  Yet today, only the pharmaceutical industry and the federal government are viewed more negatively. 

“For each of the following business sectors in the United States, please say whether your overall view of it is very positive, somewhat positive, neutral, somewhat negative or very negative.”   

        Total PositiveNeutralTotal Negative
%%%Net Positive.
Farming and agriculture691911+58
Grocery industry632412+51
Restaurant industry612415+46
Computer industry563112+44
Retail industry532818+35
Accounting42508+34
Automobile industry483516+32
Electric and gas utilities502920+30
Real estate industry473220+27
Telephone industry473220+27
Banking463222+24
Internet industry492327+22
Healthcare industry511731+20
Education482032+16
Travel industry413425+16
Publishing industry384022+16
Airline industry413326+15
Oil and gas industry432532+11
Television and radio industry412634+7
The legal field343828+6
Movie industry373033+4
Advertising and public relations industry333432+1
Sports industry302940-10
Pharmaceutical industry341749-15
The federal government302050-20
Source: Gallup July 30 – August 12, 2020

Forty percent of Americans viewed the sport industry negatively, 30% positively and 29% were neutral – a net positive of -10.  Nearly 20% of respondents said they hold a “very negative” view of sports, a record high percentage for that category.      

Across time

To place these numbers in context, I calculated the net positive image of sports for the last decade.  In every year except 2020, American’s net evaluation was positive, in most years substantially so.  Just a year ago, 20% more Americans viewed the sports industry more favorable than unfavorable – 45% positive minus 25% negative.  Now, negative views overwhelm the positives – by 10 points.    

Changes since 2019    

The negative changes appear broadly across demographic and political groupings.  Most notably, the image of sports deteriorated among Republicans and Independents – supporting politicization as a main cause of image decay.  Republicans dropped from a +11 net positive image in 2019 to -35 today.  Independent’s views tumbled from +26 in 2019 to -10 in 2020.    

While Democrat’s image remained positive in 2020 at +11, it nevertheless dropped 5 points from 2019.  Finally, while non-white American’s image of sports stayed positive at +16, it plunged dramatically from last year’s +51 rating.    

This last finding suggests there may be other forces at work besides racial justice demonstrations.   Perhaps the general disruptions in sports schedules, the play before empty stadiums, and the ever-present pandemic angst factored into people’s images of sports.  At least for some groups, negative changes may in part reflect expressions of disappointment or even disapproval of the sports industry’s response to the virus.[1]

2019-2020 Changes in Net Positive Ratings of Sports Industry
% Very/somewhat positive minus % very/somewhat negative

Aug 1-14, 2019Jul 30-Aug 12, 2020Change
U.S. adults+20-10-30
Men+17-7-24
Women+21-13-34
18 to 34+36+21-15
35 to 54+25-19-44
55++6-23-29
White Americans+4-22-26
Non-White Americans+51+16-35
Republicans+11-35-46
Independents+26-10-36
Democrats+16+11-5
GALLUP

Final thoughts

Professional basketball arenas and football stadiums have become main stages to advertise support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  Some players kneel during the national anthem, drawing attention to police brutality, social inequality, and racial injustice.  The NBA displays the words Black Lives Matter on the court and the NFL showcases its support with social justice statements in the endzone. 

Some may disagree with the political characterization. Protests are about fundamental human rights and the dignity of all individuals.  The expression “politicizing sports” is therefore improper.  Calling protests “politics” degrades the movement and discredits the players.   

Let’s be clear, I do not reference politics to impugn player’s motives nor depreciate the movement.  Rather, the word politicize accurately describes the circumstances.       

For example, sports fans recognize the political convictions of prominent sports figures.  Players and coaches are certainly not shy about expressing their opinions.  And those opinions are typically progressive and align with the Democratic Party. 

Indeed, the Democrat Party has fully embraced the Black Lives Matter movement –  whereas Republicans have not.    The intense partisanship that envelops virtually every issue quickly ensnared this one. Republicans claim Democrat’s embrace of Black Lives Matter shows contempt for law enforcement and a tacit endorsement of violent protests. 

In addition, while a majority of Americans have expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, deep partisan divisions exist.  Sixty two percent of Democrats strongly support the movement compared to just 10% of Republicans.           

Without question, protests have brought greater political awareness of social inequality and racial injustice.  In fact, that is the stated purpose of the protests.  Politics is the path that leads to significant change.             

Moreover, the footprints of politicization are evident in the data.  Survey respondents reported politics as the top reason for turning away from sports on TV.  Compared to Democrats, Republicans and Independents viewed the sports industry unfavorably this year.        

Finally, do not overlook the considerable political talents of players and those guiding the various sports leagues.  They’ve adopted to today’s stormy politics and are experienced navigators of partisan conflicts.   

The NBA appears as the progressive leader and that’s primarily because its fan base is more liberal than the other leagues.  The NBA media therefore exhibit a stronger commitment to player protests and league wide Black Lives Matter initiatives. 

By contrast, the NFL charts a comparatively moderate course.  The fan base is much larger and evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.  For this reason, the league’s support may be short-lived – at least public displays of support.  The key test of the NFL’s devotion to Black Lives Matter is the national anthem.  Watch for developments in pre-game coverage.      


[1]   General disappointment and pandemic anxiety may also explain why the travel industry’s image suffered as well, dropping 11 points since 2019.  Conversely, positive views of the healthcare industry rose by 13 points.  The performance of the health care industry during the pandemic undoubtedly influenced this change. Indeed, this is first time in two decades that a majority of Americans rated the healthcare industry favorably. 

In response to part 1 of this post, Alex suggested the consequences of pandemic angst on sports generally:   

“When COVID took away the Tourney in March, and the NBA season as we know it, it was like the real world collided with the escape of sports….I find that as I tune in and see the empty seats and simulated crowd noises, I am reminded that COVID is still harming thousands of people and claiming American lives.  In the words of Dan Le Batard, “we don’t deserve sports.”         

4 thoughts on “Politicized sports, a knife’s edge – part 2

  1. An interesting addition to the first blog on this title. The polling done by Gallop comparing attitudes towards a number off industries are interesting but appear to be vulnerable to a large number of possible variables. I wonder if subjects are sophisticated enough to make such judgements. Despite this, the comparisons for the sports industry are revealing. Times seem so chaotic this year that data has to be suspect. for example are respondents negative on sports or generally overly negative because of the limits on social interaction.

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    1. Thanks for the comments Dave. Yes, I do think the Gallup data suffers from two problems. First, the “sport industry” is a very broad category. So difficult to say what respondents consider as the industry. Second, as you mention, there are a number of possible explanations (variables) that may be responsible for the variance across time. I do think both the politics of sports and the overall pandemic angst are the driving forces behind the negative changes – exhibited in the graph. Just not certain of contribution of each. One real benefit of the Gallup data is the consistency of the question asked across 20 years. The large number of respondents that expressed the most negative views toward sports is also persuasive.

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  2. This is, like other posts, very thought provoking. If each row in the table is a dependent variable, public approval, then the intervening variable is the role of race (for this particular row). This year’s events, the murder of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor by police, and the treatment of the Arbery murder by the local law enforcement in Georgia, among other and many injustices, have legitimized the grievances of Black Americans among a general audience; to the point that even team ownership/management and league commissioners have embraced Black Lives Matter (if only symbolically). I’d argue that this focus on race has compelled an uncomfortable conversation in a general viewership. People don’t want to watch sports and reflect on this country’s history of racism, its institutional embrace and legacy of slavery and its systematic denial of the American Dream to people of color. That’s work. That’s hard. And it’s uncomfortable. Much like #MeToo has forced men to consider their treatment of women in all aspects of life, #BLM has forced issues of race relations (which have always hovered in the background) to the the fore.

    The “sports industry” variable is also very aggregated, including everyone from Jerry McGuire, Rod Tidwell, Lebron James, Jerry Jones, and James Dolan. That is, it has both labor and management wrapped up in one category. And as in most industries, labor’s policy desires are at odds with management. It’ll be interesting to see after this year, whether or not leagues will be as supportive of their players’ policy positions – especially if it alienates the median viewer’s (whoever that might be). Further, as this Ringer article shows,

    https://www.theringer.com/nba/2020/9/24/21453818/nba-owners-political-donations-trump-gop

    NBA teams owners are not as Progressive as their players (I’d imagine that other leagues would have even more conservative ownership). If team owners are now only making a proportionally small donation to players’ causes while also giving to Republican lawmakers and conservative causes, there will have to be some sort of reckoning. Maybe not. Maybe owners are just covering their bases; nonetheless, owners are conservative and are only now discussing issues of social justice. Players might have to ask where were they in the past? Why haven’t they done more? (I learned about the article above from The Right Time with Bomani Jones. It’s a really good podcast).

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    1. Thanks for your comments Alex, always enjoy your insight. I agree that the “sports industry” variable includes a vary large group. Therefore, it is difficult to determine the precise linkage between increased sports activism and sport industry image. Yet the fact that other industry’s image improved as expected during the pandemic – medical, etc does suggest there is a reasonable connection between sports activism and variance on the sport industry measure. Your second point about likely cleavages between owners and players is right on target. Overtime, that will reveal itself. I am uncertain where the “boundaries” are set, and how far the players can push them, but clearly if owners begin to lose revenue changes to the present situation would be eminent.

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