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Have Ray Rice And Roger Goodell Hurt NFL Ratings?

Many football fans have told pollsters that their view of the NFL has worsened as a result of allegations of domestic violence and child abuse by players — not just female fans, but also men in equal proportions — but so far, that sentiment hasn’t translated into a measurable decline in the league’s television ratings.

A poll conducted over the past week by Ipsos for Thomson Reuters found that 21 percent of women viewed the NFL less favorably, “given the manner that the NFL handled the suspension of several players regarding domestic violence and child abuse allegations.” That compared to 8 percent who viewed the NFL more favorably. Men were slightly more disappointed in the league’s response: 23 percent said they viewed the league less favorably, compared to 8 percent who said they viewed it more favorably.

Asked whether the NFL’s handling of the controversy would affect their viewing habits, just 15 percent of men said it would make them less likely to watch, compared to 10 percent who said it would make them more likely. Those percentages were 15 and 5, respectively, for women.

An NBC News poll corroborated those findings. It found that 55 percent of men and 50 percent of women disapproved of the league’s handling of reported domestic violence, yet 86 percent of respondents said the reports haven’t changed how much football they’ll watch.

Men’s reaction was also similar to women’s in an ESPN poll earlier this month. (ESPN owns the broadcasting rights of Monday Night Football, as well as FiveThirtyEight.) Respondents were all told details of the video of Ray Rice, a former running back for the Baltimore Ravens, punching and knocking unconscious his then fiancée, Janay Palmer. Yet even with those details in mind, 91 percent of female NFL fans and 92 percent of male NFL fans told pollsters from Langer Research Associates that the incident had no effect on their likelihood of watching NFL games, according to Juan D. Rivera of ESPN’s consumer insights group.

Nielsen ratings suggest even more than 92 percent of NFL fans haven’t let the incident prevent them from tuning in to games. Stephanie DiVito, who conducts audience research for ESPN’s research & analytics group, shared numbers through the first three weeks of each of the last three seasons. (She excluded Thursday night games and removed broadband-only homes to make the numbers comparable despite year-to-year changes in how the NFL is broadcast and how Nielsen measures possible viewers.) She shared live and same-day ratings for 10 demographic groups: males and females in five overlapping age ranges 12 and up. In just two of the groups were ratings down this year: boys age 12 to 17 and women age 18 to 34. Ratings for both groups dropped by 2 percent.

Among all women age 18 and older, ratings were up 2 percent. That’s a slowdown from the increase of 9 percent last year but isn’t consistent with less interest in the league among women.


Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.