Culture & Society

How Race Affected NFL Attendance After 2016 Protests

Using racial attitudes data, a Texas A&M professor found that as implicit racial bias increased, attendance decreased.
By Heather Gillin, Texas A&M University College of Education & Human Development February 3, 2020

football players kneeling on the sidelines
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.

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Led by football player Colin Kaepernick in 2016, many athletes began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality and social and economic inequity among people of color in the United States. The protests sparked a cultural debate, with some fans deeming the players unpatriotic.

A Texas A&M University sport management researcher reviewed racial attitudes data to understand if racial bias subsequently affected National Football League game attendance. Professor George Cunningham sought to answer if protests against the NFL were a matter of patriotism, or if racism played a role.

“We suspected that there may be other motives for the resistance to the protest, especially since it was around Black Lives Matter and predominantly African American players protesting,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham joined forces with Nicholas Watanabe, a sports economist at the University of South Carolina, to take a closer look through data analysis. They found that as implicit racial bias increased, game attendance decreased. The research was recently published in the journal PLOSE ONE.

“We utilized economic methods that allow us to analyze whether various forms of racial bias had an impact on attendance at NFL regular season games,” Watanabe said. “Using these methods allows us to control for other factors that can influence attendance, such as the strength of teams or timing of games, as well as estimate how big of an impact the factors had.”

They looked at data from cities with major NFL teams, specifically the residents’ explicit and implicit biases.

“Some biases are explicit, like when you consciously think, ‘I like that group or I do not like that group,’ and others are implicit, where people usually think that they are fair minded and yet show an unconscious form of racism,” Cunningham said.

How is implicit bias measured?

Implicit bias can be trickier to identify because people will demonstrate it in subtle ways. Cunningham and Watanabe used data made publicly available by Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory that collects data through online testing.

“The test presents you with multiple options, asks you to share positive or negative associations and tracks your responses as well as how long you linger on certain questions,” Cunningham said.

They found that implicit bias played more of a role in influencing consumer decisions to attend games than other forms of racial bias. Cunningham suspects this might be because those with explicit bias were already less likely to attend games prior to the protests.

“I think the increase in discussions about race and racism from the protests could have queued that implicit racism among the consumers,” Cunningham said. “For the explicit racist, it does not matter one way or the other, they are going to have negative attitudes toward the players.”

Implicit bias at the community level

Cunningham said implicit bias is typically weakly related to outcomes at the individual level. However, it can have larger impacts at the community level.

“Our implicit bias may or may not predict decisions people make on a regular basis, but at the community level, it takes on a culture-like property,” Cunningham said.

In this case, the consumer’s choice to attend a game was much stronger when viewing the community as a whole than it was when looking at any one individual in a community.

Cunningham said because of this, implicit bias should be tackled at the community level. Increasing representation and equality are just a few ways that communities can reduce implicit bias.

“News that we report on and how we report it, even pictures in an office all send messages that people take in and process in their minds, forming linkages,” Cunningham said. “Having better and more positive representation of all groups can help fight that bias.”

What can you do to fight implicit bias?

Cunningham said taking measures to be around people who are not like you is a step in the right direction and could influence your peers to do the same.

“If everybody did that, then it could start to take on that group property, and has potential to become the new culture,” Cunningham said.

Overall, Cunningham said the NFL protests did not cause a significant dip in attendance, contrary to some of the narratives that took place at the time.

“Implicit racism was just a part of many factors that contributed to people’s decision to attend the games,” Cunningham said.

Media contact: Ashley Green, Texas A&M University College of Education and Human Development,

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