Football Remains the Country’s Favorite Game, Despite Fans’ Reservations
Detailed poll results and analysis are available at www.uml.edu/polls. UMass Lowell political scientists are available for interviews.
Americans are evenly split on whether gambling on sports should be allowed, despite the practice being legal in more than half of the U.S., according to a poll released Wednesday by UMass Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion.
Respondents shared other views, particularly about professional football. As an estimated 193 million people prepare to watch Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, fans expressed major concerns with violence on and off the field.
Wavering on wagering
As more and more states open their doors to it, respondents appear lukewarm about sports betting. The practice was only legal in Nevada before 2018, when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for further adoption across the nation. Just five years later, gambling on sports, and the billion-dollar industry it supports, is legal in more than half of U.S. states – including Massachusetts, which rolled out sportsbooks Jan. 31.
Yet, when asked whether the practice should be legal, poll respondents were tied, with 31% in favor and 31% opposed. What’s more, only 15% of polltakers reported placing a bet on a sporting event in the last five years. Respondents who support legalized sports gambling appear to be in sync regardless of their politics, with 34% of those who identify as Democrats and 33% of those who identify as Republicans in favor, the poll found.
“States are full steam ahead on sports betting despite mixed opinions and serious reservations from citizens,” said Associate Professor John Cluverius, the center’s director of survey research and a UMass Lowell political scientist who designed and analyzed the poll. “Access to legal sports betting is far less popular than access to abortion or cannabis in the U.S., and yet, Americans face a much more difficult time seeking an abortion or a cannabis product than placing a wager on a game. Sports fans appear fed up with the deluge of ads from betting operations and seem to want sports betting to go back in the shadows.”
For the percentage of people who are placing wagers, sports betting requires a level of engagement other forms of gambling do not, according to UMass Lowell psychology Professor Emeritus Richard Siegel, an authority on addictive behaviors.
“Unlike casinos and lotteries, which are entirely, or almost entirely, based on luck, sports betting requires some skill, because you need to keep up with important data to make an informed decision. Playing the lottery is simply easier – just go to your local gas station or convenience store – while sports betting locations are not nearly as ubiquitous,” he said.
No one’s punting on American football
More than half (52%) of the 1,000 U.S. adults who answered the survey said player injuries sustained during games are a “major problem” in the NFL, while two-thirds of respondents (67%) believe long-term health problems caused by hits are a major problem for athletes.
Respondents were also concerned with players’ behavior beyond game day. Nearly half (49%), said domestic violence and 43% said other violent crimes committed by players are major problems.
Still, Americans don’t appear anywhere near ready to give up the game.
“Americans are profoundly concerned about almost every aspect of professional football on and off the field. Nonetheless, they can’t stop watching,” said Cluverius. “This reveals something at the heart of American sports fandom: Americans are disturbed by the excesses of professional football precisely because they love it so much.”
Poll results further reflected respondents’ affinity for the game. Forty-two percent said football is the sport they watch most frequently and 39% said they are fans of the professional game.
The numbers remain true across all demographic and political subgroups: While a slightly larger share of respondents who are Democrats (43%) than Republicans (37%), describe themselves as fans of professional football, these numbers are roughly even across those who identify as liberal (39%) and conservative (38%).
Respondents were also asked about the popularity of a handful of professional athletes. The survey found:
- Retired tennis star Serena Williams had the highest net favorability of any figure (62%) compared to a 10% unfavorable rating.
- U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles also holds a high net favorability rating among respondents as 51% view her favorably and 7% unfavorably.
- NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who last played in the league in 2016, is the only figure in the poll to receive a net negative favorability rating, 32% favorable to 33% unfavorable.
- Other athletes who have spoken out on political and social issues enjoy more generous favorability ratings. U.S. women’s soccer gold-medal winner Megan Rapinoe is viewed narrowly favorably overall, 23% to 18%, whereas NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers is viewed quite favorably, 34% to 17%.
The nonpartisan survey was funded by the university’s Center for Public Opinion and conducted online by YouGov between Jan. 25 through Jan. 30, 2023. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.6 percentage points.
UMass Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion presents events and polling on political and social issues to provide opportunities for civic engagement, experiential learning and real-world research. The center is a member of the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) Transparency Initiative. Detailed poll results, including topline and full methodology, are available at www.uml.edu/polls.
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