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Football season is right around the corner, but a recent resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic may put a damper on viewership. With the 2021 NFL season kicking off next month, The Harris Poll conducted a survey for Ad Age on planned watch patterns and found a slight dip in the share of Americans who plan to tune in this season compared to last year. 

Who’s watching — and where?

An impressive 65% of Americans reported watching NFL games last season, but only 60% have plans to tune in for the 2021 season — a potential loss of tens of millions in viewers.

And Americans aren’t exactly clamoring to attend games in-person, with only about 1 in 4 (27%) likely to attend an event and only 12% very likely to. What’s more, most Americans (69%) and NFL fans (73%) agree it’s not safe for kids to attend major sporting events in person. 

While the reasons for a potential drop in viewership are myriad, the pandemic’s role is clear. Americans reported that the more crowded a bar or restaurant is, the less likely they are to watch a game there. Forty percent said they’d watch a game at a bar or restaurant that wasn’t at all crowded (at less than 25% occupancy), while only 25% said they’d stick around if the venue was very crowded (at more than 76% occupancy).

There is some good news for the NFL and advertisers, however: of those planning to watch this season, one-third (33%) plan to watch more games this season compared to last, which could translate into higher ratings and stronger engagement. 

What ads do viewers want to see?

With a potential drop in viewership, it will be critical for brands to deliver ads that draw viewers in and keep them from changing the channel. 

In our recent polling, we found that ‘funny’ and ‘uplifting’ ads are fan favorites — while ‘nostalgic’ ads may have run their course. Most Americans say they want to see ads that are funny (57%) and uplifting (52%) aired during NFL games. And NFL fans agree: 66% want to see funny ads and 62% want to see uplifting ads. 

Although a common theme for Super Bowl LV ads and for post-COVID ads in general, only 29% of Americans and 34% of NFL fans want to see ‘nostalgic’ ads aired during NFL games. 

Of course, major brand sponsorships aren’t going anywhere, and fortunately for these brands, they do make a difference with viewers — especially if they’re NFL fans.  61% of NFL fans say they prefer to buy from brands that sponsor their favorite sports team, while 48% of Americans overall agree. 

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Ad Age between August 6-9, 2021, among 1,667 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. For more information on methodology, please contact Dami Rosanwo.

Download the full data tables here.

Lucas Strombeck

Author Lucas Strombeck

Lucas Strombeck manages public relations for The Harris Poll and its brand tracking software, Harris Poll Brand Platform. Drawing on his extensive background in data-driven storytelling, he works closely with Harris Poll researchers and media partners to connect the dots between consumer insights, market trends and headline news. Before joining The Harris Poll, Lucas was a senior manager at Walker Sands, where he led PR strategy for fast-growing B2B tech startups and SaaS companies -- primarily in the martech and ad tech space. He is a graduate of Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

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