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Who’s Asking For Sports To Come Back Right Away? Republicans, Mostly.

Earlier this week, we presented a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll tracking sentiments about sports returning from their pandemic-induced hiatus. The poll of 1,109 Americans was conducted from May 5 to 111 and asked a variety of questions about how sports might start again and what would make fans feel safe at games. We also broke down how those attitudes were influenced by respondents’ overall fandom and previous viewing habits — and even how their answers split along partisan lines — and found some pretty fascinating trends.

Respondents were presented with seven sports — baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, soccer and NASCAR — and asked to rate their level of fan interest in each. Three sports saw at least a quarter of Americans describe themselves as “casual” or “major” fans: football (which checked in with a whopping 45 percent in the category), baseball (31 percent) and basketball (26 percent).

There is a Big Three of sports in America

Share of Americans who classified themselves at each level of fandom by sport, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Sport Follow a Little Casual Fans Major Fans All fans
Football 19.4% 21.2% 24.0% 45.2%
Baseball 23.0 19.2 12.1 31.3
Basketball 21.8 15.8 10.4 26.2
Hockey 16.1 8.3 4.4 12.6
Soccer 16.5 8.1 4.5 12.6
Golf 12.6 6.8 3.7 10.5
NASCAR 12.7 7.0 2.7 9.7

Poll of 1,109 Americans was conducted May 5-11, 2020. “All fans” includes anyone who said they were a “casual” or “major” fan but excludes respondents who said they follow the sport a little.

Each of those three had more than twice the fan support of any other sport in the poll — hockey and soccer are essentially tied as America’s fourth-favorite sport, at 13 percent apiece — so we’ll focus today on football, baseball and basketball as “major sports.”

One of the big themes as sports come back will be the necessity of watching from home via television or streaming, as many places will likely continue to ban or restrict large gatherings — and most fans wouldn’t feel safe attending a game even if restrictions were lifted. (In our poll, 76 percent of Americans and 65 percent of fans of the major sports said they would not be likely to attend a game in person right now, even if it were allowed.) So it would stand to reason that a sport might be better suited to adapt to a world of empty stadiums if it already had a large base of followers who watched from home but didn’t necessarily go to games.

Fans watch football on screen, baseball in person

How often fans of a sport attended games or watched/streamed games before the coronavirus outbreak, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Percent attending a game at least …
Sport A few times per Week Once per week A few times per month A few times per season never
Football 3% 9% 15% 47% 53%
Baseball 3 5 18 67 32
Basketball 4 8 15 53 46
Percent watching/streaming a game at least…
Sport A few times per Week Once per week A few times per month A few times per season* never
Football 32% 72% 88% 98% 2%
Baseball 31 57 80 96 4
Basketball 30 54 74 97 2

*Only major games, tournaments or finals.

Poll was conducted among 1,109 Americans between May 5–11, 2020. “Fans” includes anyone who said they were a “casual” or “major” fan but excludes respondents who said they follow the sport a little.

Looking at the breakdowns among fans of each sport, it’s clear that baseball’s base of fans who attend games in person is much stronger than that of other sports. Eighteen percent of baseball fans say they attended several games per month before the crisis, and 67 percent say they went to at least a few games per season. (Contrast that with football and basketball fans, about half of whom said they went to multiple games per season.) But football fans have a stronger habit of watching (or streaming) games regularly. Seventy-two percent of them say they watch at least one game per week, and 88 percent watch at least a few games per month. Only 57 percent of baseball fans watch game broadcasts weekly, and 80 percent watch several times per month; those numbers drop to 54 percent and 74 percent for basketball.2

Much of this probably boils down to cost and convenience; according to the Fan Cost Index, the recent price of taking a family to an NFL game is 44 percent higher than an NBA game and a staggering 123 percent higher than an MLB game. There are also just way more MLB games (about 2,430 under normal circumstances) than NFL games (256) in a season. But whatever the reason, football fans are already used to watching games from home — more than half said they never attended games even before the coronavirus — while baseball fans may need some time to adjust to consuming the game exclusively from home.

Another striking element of the poll results is how partisanship is shaping fans’ views on how sports should reopen. The most polarizing questions in our entire poll involved when the leagues ought to come back: More than 20 percent of Republican respondents thought NASCAR, golf and baseball should come back immediately, while fewer than 3 percent of Democrats agreed. Meanwhile, more than a third of Democrats thought football and hockey should wait for a COVID-19 vaccine before restarting, while only around 15 percent of Republicans shared that opinion.

When to restart sports splits Americans by party

Questions about restarting sports that resulted the largest absolute partisan lean (in either direction) in a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Share of Party
Question Response Dem. Rep. Lean
When should NASCAR restart? Immediately 2% 24% R +22
When should golf restart? Immediately 3 24 R +22
When should baseball restart? Immediately 1 21 R +21
When should football restart? After vaccine 36 16 D +20
When should hockey restart? After vaccine 35 15 D +20
When should NASCAR restart? After vaccine 31 12 D +19
When should soccer restart? After vaccine 35 17 D +19
When should golf restart? After vaccine 31 12 D +19
When should baseball restart? After vaccine 33 15 D +18
When should basketball restart? After vaccine 34 17 D +18
When should hockey restart? Immediately 0 18 R +18
When should football restart? Immediately 2 19 R +17

Party shares are among all respondents who identified with a given party, not just fans of that sport. Poll of 1,109 Americans was conducted May 5-11, 2020.

This matches how other polls have measured the general divide between Republicans and Democrats on the coronavirus threat. Although majorities in both parties believe the country needs to maintain social-distancing rules, about a third of Republicans would like to see those policies relaxed (versus less than 10 percent of Democrats) — maybe part of what those who’d like to relax those rules hope to see is sports leagues coming back immediately. Meanwhile, nearly half of Democrats are in favor of more aggressive social distancing, which fits in with the idea of holding off on sports until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed.

Speaking of a vaccine, one of the most interesting aspects of the poll results involved people who didn’t think a vaccine would help (even “a little”) to make them feel more comfortable attending a sporting event in person. Originally, I interpreted that group as being averse to large crowds permanently in the wake of a life-changing pandemic. But after a deeper dive into the crosstabs, I found that the opposite may be true for some.

The cohort who didn’t think a vaccine would help was slightly more likely to identify as Republican (30 percent of Republicans versus 20 percent of Democrats) and to not have a college degree (31 percent of non-college graduates polled versus 17 percent of college grads). Among that combined demographic — Republicans without college degrees — roughly as many respondents thought a vaccine wouldn’t help (36 percent) as thought it would help “a lot” (37 percent). For reference’s sake, among Americans as a whole, 27 percent think a vaccine wouldn’t help and 51 percent say it would help a lot. So some of those who didn’t think a vaccine would help may be part of the growing trend of conservative skepticism about the lockdowns, and about mass vaccinations in general — although there are people opposed to vaccinations on the left, too. And in fairness, this group is still a small segment of respondents to the poll.

As we creep closer to sports making their comebacks, likely in empty arenas and ballparks, the immediate emphasis will be on the fan experience from home, through television and streaming. Some sports will take to that better than others. But the more delicate balance may be political — between those who want to accelerate the games’ return to pre-coronavirus procedures and those who want to proceed with more caution. In a sports landscape that was already wrestling with partisan divides, we’ll see how each league navigates the myriad challenges that lie ahead.

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  1. The margin of error was +/-3.2 percent.

  2. Basketball fans do show up more for the “major” games: 23 percent said that’s all they watch, compared with 16 percent for baseball and 10 percent for football. Then again, basketball teams and players seem to take the same approach.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.