“Stick to sports” may have been a futile mission for 2020, but the past several weeks in the sports world have dashed any remaining hopes. The NBA paused its entire playoff slate for two days after the Milwaukee Bucks, in a sign of protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc., refused to play Game 5 of their series against the Orlando Magic last week. MLB, the WNBA, MLS and the NHL similarly postponed games because of player demonstrations. The NFL, where kneeling protests began in 2016, announced that all facilities would be closed on Nov. 3 to ensure the opportunity to vote.
Then on Tuesday, President Trump tweeted that the Big Ten should play college football this fall, stating that he met with conference commissioner Kevin Warren.
Had a very productive conversation with Kevin Warren, Commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, about immediately starting up Big Ten football. Would be good (great!) for everyone – Players, Fans, Country. On the one yard line!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2020
With two months to go until election day, the meeting may have been about more than football. Big Ten schools are located in several battleground states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, and pushback to the conference’s decision to postpone fall sports has been picking up steam. The president, meanwhile, has had much less to say about the California-based Pac-12.
Also noteworthy: The other three Power 5 conferences—the Big 12, SEC and ACC, all based in central or southern states—chose to go forward with modified seasons, leaving the majority of FBS schools still slated to play football this fall.
Our map above shows that schools pressing on with their college football seasons are much more likely to be in red-leaning states than those that canceled or postponed. Sixty-nine of the 77 FBS schools playing football this fall (89.6%) reside in states that supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, compared with less than half of the schools that won’t be playing. This is in line with a recent poll published by Just the News that shows conservatives are far more likely to be in favor of sports returning to action than liberals.
After clicking on the “View COVID-19 cases” button, the map shows an even more stark divide: States whose schools are largely planning to play college football this fall have seen far more COVID-19 cases per capita over the past 10 days. As the college football season is set to begin tonight, many are questioning whether or not it is safe to play, given that daily COVID-19 cases are rising, on average, in counties that are home to an SEC, Big 12 or ACC school, even as case counts decline nationwide.
We chose to show data at the state level, rather than the county level, for two reasons. First, much of the policies and regulations related to COVID-19 come from the state government, with governors often driving the decision-making. Secondly, we wanted to make it visually easy to group together large regions of the United States and draw conclusions, which we found to be an overwhelming task when viewing roughly 3,000 counties at once.
Trump is also not the only politician leveraging the power of college football. Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president Joe Biden tweeted an ad last week that opened with an image of an empty football stadium in Michigan, a swing state that narrowly went to Trump in 2016. The caption read: “Donald Trump put our nation on the sidelines. Let’s get back in the game.”
Just as states have been divided into different political colors, leagues themselves have either red or blue fan bases. A FiveThirtyEight study from 2017 of Google search trends revealed that, while college football is much more popular in Republican markets than Democratic ones, with a following even more partisan than that of NASCAR, the NBA has the most left-leaning fan base of any of the major sports. In a new Harris poll, more than half of Republicans chose, “The league has become too political,” as a reason that they were watching less NBA basketball, compared to less than a quarter of Democratic fans.
Opinions about sports are fracturing along political lines, and so has college football.