Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 8
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

‘Fair’ Catch: New survey of NFL fans shows good and bad trends for league

When we started playing sports in backyards and on playgrounds, fairness mattered more than anything. Not surprisingly, fair play matters equally to those playground athletes who become sports fans. In fact, according to fan research from Horizon Media, fairness matters now more than ever.

Concerns about fair play in the NFL reached a cacophonous level on social media after the missed pass interference call helped doom the Saints in January’s NFC Championship Game loss to the Rams, and in the AFC Championship in which the Chiefs never got to possess the ball in overtime before losing to the Patriots.

According to a two-part, online poll conducted in late January and early February of more than 1,400 18- to 64-year-olds who identify as either NFL fans or non-fans who planned to watch the Super Bowl, there was an uptick in perceptions related to inauthenticity. While 36% of fans said the quality of officiating had improved, on the question of whether the league had “unbiased officiating,” one-third agreed, 30% disagreed and the rest were unsure. 

When asked their agreement with the certain statements about the NFL, 26% chose “Fake,” up from 11% in 2018.

So is there cause for concern for the league? Surely. Consider that fans who think the NFL is “fair” are two times more likely to say they love the league, and like the game more than in previous seasons.

With the growth of legalized gambling, perceptions of fair play are even more crucial. Concerns will grow as legal sports betting spreads. By a split of 42% to 25%, bettors who believe the game is fair were more likely to say they were betting more than bettors who think the league is unfair or were unsure.

“Our phones are what the water cooler was, and with sports betting growing on a national scale, the stakes are higher,” said Michael Neuman, managing partner of Horizon’s Scout Sports and Entertainment, which has sports-centric clients including Burger King, Capital One and Corona. “There will be substantial pressure on the leagues to clarify this whole concept of fairness, which is really evolving. It’s not just an NFL issue, it’s becoming an issue across sports.”

A non-call in the NFC Championship Game left Saints fans irate.
Photo: getty images
A non-call in the NFC Championship Game left Saints fans irate.
Photo: getty images
A non-call in the NFC Championship Game left Saints fans irate.
Photo: getty images

Other results from the survey showed that one year after the national anthem controversy and continued domestic violence concerns catalyzed ratings declines, the NFL bounced back with stronger fan avidity and engagement scores in 2018.

What Horizon calls the “Heart” factor — an amalgam of fan engagement metrics — increased by more than 30%. Almost 40% of fans surveyed said they watched and/or liked the league more than in previous seasons.

Family-friendly perceptions among fans rose from 44% to 66%, while there were also year-to-year gains in those agreeing that the NFL was exciting (41% vs. 35%), fast-paced (31% vs. 24%), suspenseful (29% vs. 21%) and inspiring (60%, up from 47%).

As positive perceptions of the league grew last season, so did goodwill for its corporate sponsors. League patrons were perceived as more innovative than the prior year (52% vs. 33%), and fans were more than 1.5 times likely to say they’d recommend and almost twice as likely to say they’d pay more for products from companies sponsoring the NFL. Sixty percent of fans agreed that “sponsoring the NFL was a “great way to get their attention,” up from 40% in 2017.

“Fans were more engaged and emotionally connected than what we saw in the year prior, which benefited not only the league but also league sponsors,” said Karen Van Vleet, vice president of strategy at Horizon’s WHY consumer insights group. 

Sports properties enjoy the benefits of social media as an unrivaled fan engagement adhesive. By some measures, more than half of social media conversation are sports related, and controversial moments help drive engagement.

“Questionable calls live forever on social media, so it’s a double-edged sword,” Van Vleet said, “but as technology and social media evolve, we feel like fairness will be more and more of a hot button.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.