How fans and brands have reacted to the NFL controversy

Football season, one of America’s most popular sports traditions, is now underway. And in keeping with a consistent theme for 2017, this year’s season is off to a controversy-filled start.

While ongoing concerns around head injuries as well as debates around the popularity of the sport have made headlines, nothing has driven more attention so far than player national anthem protests.

Current and former NFL players have demonstrated their disagreement with the president and others by linking arms and taking a knee during the national anthem for recent games. Players and teams have continued their solidarity and maintained their right to free speech, but how are NFL fans and brands reacting to the anthem controversy?

How are NFL fans reacting?

When comparing the audience talking about the NFL in 2016 to those talking about the league in 2017, we see a significant shift. Men continue to drive conversations surrounding football; however, compared to last year, there has been an 11% increase in women engaging in NFL conversations.

Likewise, there’s been a spike in ages 35-64 talking about the NFL. This older audience, especially ages 45-54, are usually a highly engaged political audience. Additionally, we found that this audience is just as likely to talk about football as they are to mention activism and 5% more likely to talk about Trump than they are to talk about football itself.

Clearly, the protests have infiltrated conversations surrounding the NFL season. It’s safe to say that both Trump and the NFL are feeling the backlash of this controversy as NFL fans are discussing Trump and the NFL in a negative manner nearly 80% of the time.

How are NFL brands reacting?

Most of the NFL’s biggest sponsors issued statements agreeing with both the players’ rights to protest and their respect for the American flag, essentially taking a middle ground. We took a closer look and noticed that Budweiser was seeing a particularly large backlash from the controversy. From when the story broke, NFL fans starting talking about Budweiser 90% more than any other NFL sponsor. And, by the end of September, Budweiser was only mentioned 9% positively by NFL fans.

Has Budweiser’s sponsorship of the NFL become toxic for the brand? Perhaps. Budweiser has even gone so far as to dedicate an entire hotline to hear from consumers regarding their thoughts on Budweiser’s continued sponsorship of the NFL.

While other sponsors, like Under Armour, Hyundai, and Ford have all made statements, conversations surrounding them have taken a drastically negative turn as well. Will this be a year of contemplation for these brands to consider continued association with a league mired in controversy?

The anthem controversy is hardly the first this year as report after report came out proving the strong correlation between CTE and football players. In fact, reports recently emerged stating Aaron Hernandez had severe CTE when he died at only 27-years-old. Pundits continue to speculate about correlations between these controversies and declining NFL ratings.

According to our data, NFL conversation volume has dropped since 2016 by 72%. Perhaps even more telling is that negative conversations about the NFL have increased by 64% from 2016 to 2017. With less engagement and more negative sentiment, it will be interesting to see if the NFL is a less attractive sponsorship option in 2018.

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Besides Trump’s latest controversy with the NFL, we found the top 5 most talked about moments from the past month.

Amit Avner is chief executive and founder of Taykey

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Amit Avner

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