Study explores the link between racial attitudes and NFL attendance during Black Lives Matter protests

A study published in PLOS One found that National Football League (NFL) markets with higher implicit racial bias had lower game attendance. During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2016 and 2017, however, these markets actually had higher NFL attendance.

The Black Lives Matter protests by prominent NFL players in 2016 and 2017 stirred up much discussion among the American population. In particular, Colin Kaepernick, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, made headlines when he took a knee during a pre-game national anthem in 2016. His actions even garnered the attention of then presidential candidate Donald Trump, who slammed the protest as disgraceful and disrespectful to the flag.

There is some evidence to suggest that public opinion on the protests was racially divided and that NFL game attendance dropped following these protests. Study authors Nicholas Masafumi Watanabe and George B. Cunningham conducted a study to systematically explore how public attitudes about race might have coincided with fluctuations in NFL attendance.

As the researchers describe, “attendance and capacity data was collected for every regular season game from the 2012 through 2017 NFL seasons . . .  From this, the final data set for this research is composed of 1,472 observations of home attendance for regular season games over a six-year period.”

The researchers scored each market with an NFL franchise across several measures of racial prejudice. Implicit racial bias was scored using data from yearly Implicit Association Tests (IAT) conducted at Harvard University. Racial animus, which refers to explicit racial prejudice that a person may be reluctant to disclose openly, was calculated using a formula involving each market’s Google search trends for the “N-word.” Finally, explicit racial prejudice was gleaned from data from the Pew Research Center describing “the percentage of individuals in each state who stated that race relations were becoming worse in the U.S.”

Statistical analysis found no relationships between a market’s NFL attendance and its scores for racial animus or explicit racial prejudice. However, a market’s IAT scores were negatively associated with game attendance. As the researchers report, it appeared that “when there was greater implicit racial bias in a market, individuals were less likely to attend games.”

Interestingly, when the researchers tested the interaction between IAT scores and the occurrence of protests, it was found that markets with higher IAT scores saw a climb in attendance during the protests, more so than when there were no protests.

“Thus,” the authors say, “the results suggest that while having higher implicit bias in a market reduced attendance at NFL games, this impact was lessened during the time when protests were occurring in the league. As such, it highlights that rather than causing a negative impact on demand for NFL games, the protests might have actually mitigated some of the negative effects from implicit bias.”

Still, although the IAT scores significantly affected NFL attendance, the effect sizes were small. “Generally, the results from this research indicate that implicit race bias has the ability to influence the consumer decision-making process, but that the size of this effect is minor. Nevertheless, racial implicit bias is a behavior that organizations, managers, and other stakeholders need to be cognizant of, as they could influence the operations and accrual of resources.”

The study was limited by the fact that it did not take into account other important events throughout the years that may have impacted NFL game attendance. However, given the wide media coverage and political significance of the NFL players’ Black Lives Matter protests, it can be argued that they undoubtedly had an effect on game attendance.

The study, “The impact of race relations on NFL attendance: An econometric analysis”, was authored by Nicholas Masafumi Watanabe and George B. Cunningham.

(Photo credit: Keith Allison)

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