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 Positive||Neutral||Total Negative|
|Farming and agriculture||69||19||11||+58|
|Electric and gas utilities||50||29||20||+30|
|Real estate industry||47||32||20||+27|
|Oil and gas industry||43||25||32||+11|
|Television and radio industry||41||26||34||+7|
|The legal field||34||38||28||+6|
|Advertising and public relations industry||33||34||32||+1|
|The federal government||30||20||50||-20|
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.
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.
2019-2020 Changes in Net Positive Ratings of Sports Industry
% Very/somewhat positive minus % very/somewhat negative
|Aug 1-14, 2019||Jul 30-Aug 12, 2020||Change|
|18 to 34||+36||+21||-15|
|35 to 54||+25||-19||-44|
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.
 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.”