Perspective: The NFL has a kid problem. It’s not what you might think

An Instagram presence and Super Bowl halftime shows can only do so much to attract young fans

On a sports talk radio show recently, a Carolina Panthers fan lamented how long it takes for true fandom to take hold for a new NFL team.

In the first few years of the franchise, he said, people would cheer for the Panthers except when their previous favorite teams came to town. Then they’d revert to being Steelers or Raiders or Packers fans again. It wasn’t until a generation of children in the Carolinas grew up as Panthers fans that the team developed an intensely loyal fan base. 

That’s one man’s theory, but it makes sense. And it’s something the National Football League seems to understand on a molecular level. For professional football to remain profitable in the long term, it needs not only the devotion of grown-ups, but of children.

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This is a problem for the NFL, since young Americans are increasingly uninterested in professional football, and in other sports as well.

A 2020 survey found that fewer than a quarter of Generation Z watch a sports game weekly and nearly 40% don’t watch sports at all. They might tune into the Super Bowl at 4:30 p.m. MST this Sunday, but not necessarily to watch the Bengals and Rams. More than any other age group, young adults are the most likely to say they only watch the broadcast to see the commercials and possibly the halftime show.

As a 2019 article in Sports Illustrated said, “Youth appeal is a bigger NFL business concern than protests or concussions.” As such, the league is aggressively marketing itself to young Americans, using social media such as Instagram and TikTok, and the video game franchise Madden. A little more than a year ago, Conor Orr wrote for Sports Illustrated, “The attempts to reach younger viewers are not yet at the level of outright pandering.”

One might say the pandering arrived with the NFL’s partnership with children’s network Nickelodeon, which has broadcast two games replete with animated “slime cannons” that celebrate touchdowns. While the broadcast might have been aimed at children, one of my colleagues reports that she has 30-something friends who watched and loved it. Nickelodeon also has a series called “NFL Slimetime” that features child-friendly game highlights, interviews with players and segments highlighting teams.

Will it work? As with the development of the Panthers fanbase, it will probably take a generation to see. But for all the NFL’s clever marketing, the league has kid problems that are tougher to solve, the first one being that, when not sanitized and edited for Nickelodeon, the games themselves are not always child-friendly.

In this, I’m not speaking of the gladiatorial nature of the sport and the inherent violence of 250-pound men tearing into each other. Broadcasts are quick to cut away when someone is hurt, and injured players are quickly whisked into tents.

It’s the experience of going to games that are famously unwelcoming for families, so much so that on online forums like Quora and Reddit, people ask if it’s OK to take a child to a game. The answers often note that it’s pretty much a given that there will be drunkenness, foul language and generally boorish behavior outside the stadium and in the stands, more so at night games. In other words, take your chances, better at an afternoon game.

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Of course, fans behaving badly is not unique to football, and anecdotally, there seems to be this lately, from fans verbally abusing players to throwing water bottles to running on the Super Bowl field. Also, there’s more opportunity for bad behavior to be filmed and posted on YouTube, like this verbal altercation at a Raiders-Ravens game last September. Imagine sitting by those guys with your 7-year-old.

Five years ago, The Washington Post examined where and when violence was most likely to occur in NFL stadiums (then, the Chargers had the most arrests; the Panthers, the fewest, and the most incidents occurred during evening games). Likely, many of these incidents are related to alcohol consumption; researchers say nearly half of people going to NFL games consume alcohol, and a third report that they start drinking two hours before the game, a practice so common that it has a name: “pregaming.”

The NFL’s biggest kid problem, though, has nothing to do with any of this, but is the fact that, thanks to America’s declining fertility rate, in coming decades, there will be far fewer children for them to woo, on Nickelodeon and elsewhere. If trends go unchanged, American women will have roughly half the number of children they had in the 1950s, an average of 1.78 throughout the course of their childbearing years. This has sobering implications for every aspect of American life, so much so that there ought to be a Super Bowl ad encouraging people to have children, like one Denmark produced a few years ago.

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Already, people are looking at what effect a declining birthrate might have on participation in youth sports, in decline because of competition with myriad other activities and concerns parents have about concussions. These concerns will eventually confront the number-crunchers at the National Football League as well, and no amount of green slime will help. “Do it for Denmark,” that nation’s pro-fertility ad urged reluctant couples. “Do it for the NFL,” ours might say.

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