How Sports Fans View Leagues’ Political Affiliations and Ideologies

Sports analyst Mark J. Burns unpacks how major sports organizations are perceived by fans, and why leagues’ efforts to be more inclusive are a win-win
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Natalie White
October 31, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • Of the five major American men’s sports leagues, the NBA is most widely perceived as liberal, and the NHL most widely perceived as conservative.

  • Three-quarters of sports fans, and roughly the same share of LGBTQ+ sports fans specifically, said that leagues’ investments in diversity and inclusion welcome new types of fans, a sign that such efforts are a win-win for organizations.

  • Teams of all sizes and from all leagues need executives and managers who can proactively identify an organization’s blind spots with marginalized communities and address them before problems arise.

For our latest sports data and analysis, sign up for our daily briefing.

In recent years, U.S. sports leagues and teams have made concerted efforts to appear more diverse and inclusive, from Pride nights and celebrations around National Coming Out Day to other supportive marketing initiatives. As recent backlash toward the NHL has shown, the perception of being welcoming toward minority groups — or not — continues to drive headlines.

This begs the question: What are sports leagues’ ideological reputations?

Morning Consult surveyed sports fans on the general reputations of various leagues, and the data reveals that two of the leading women’s leagues — the WNBA and NWSL — are most widely perceived as liberal by self-identified sports fans, while the NBA comes in third, highest among the five major men’s leagues in North America. Meanwhile, 54% of sports fans said the NHL was “more conservative” or “somewhat conservative,” the largest share among the seven leagues included in the survey.

How Fans View Sports Leagues’ Political Ideologies

Sports fans said whether the following leagues are liberal or conservative:
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted Sept. 6-10, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,209 U.S. adults, including 1,629 self-identified sports fans, with unweighted margins of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

About 7 in 10 sports fans (71%), and roughly the same share of LGBTQ+ sports fans specifically, said the WNBA is either “more liberal” or “somewhat liberal,” highest among the seven leagues included in the survey. About 60% of LGBTQ+ sports fans said the same about MLS and the NWSL. (The survey defined “LGBTQ+ sports fans” as any respondent who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, asexual, transgender, genderqueer and/or gender-nonconforming, as well as an avid or casual sports fan.)

At 50%, the NFL received the largest share of “more conservative” or “somewhat conservative” responses from LGBTQ+ sports fans, though the shares for the NHL and MLB (both 48%) fell within the survey’s margin of error.

Diversity, inclusion efforts are a win-win but need to be authentic

Most sports fans, as well as most LGBTQ+ sports fans specifically, agree that leagues’ investments in diversity and inclusion welcome new audiences. Meanwhile, nearly 3 in 4 LGBTQ+ sports fans (73%) said such investments empower existing fans to feel more accepted.

Sports Fans, LGBTQ+ and Not, Say Diversity and Inclusion Efforts Welcome New Audiences

Respondents’ views on sports leagues’ diversity and inclusion efforts
Morning Consult Logo
Survey conducted Sept. 6-10, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,209 U.S. adults, including 1,629 sports fans and 214 LGBTQ+ sports fans, with unweighted margins of error of up to +/-7 percentage points.

Themed promotions such as Pride nights that encourage marginalized groups to attend games are a good place to start. Previous Morning Consult research indicates there’s an appetite, as about half of sports fans said teams should host more or the same number of events focused on inclusivity. About 7 in 10 Gen Z adults — a sought-after and influential demographic that the sports industry largely struggles to reach and connect with — shared the same opinion.

Of course, authenticity matters too. So teams should regularly work with local outreach groups that have long-established relationships with these communities. Per our research, only 24% of LGBTQ+ sports fans said leagues truly care about diversity and inclusion, compared with 59% who said such efforts are motivated by a desire to draw new fans and increase revenue. Clearly, there’s still work to be done and trust to be built.

Specific demographics at scale: Surveying thousands of consumers around the world every day powers our ability to examine and analyze perceptions and habits of more specific demographics at scale, like those featured here.

Why it matters: Leaders need a better understanding of their audiences when making key decisions. Our comprehensive approach to understanding audience profiles complements the “who” of demographics and the “what” of behavioral data with critical insights and analysis on the “why.”

Diversity efforts shouldn’t be one-off events

Genuinely embracing diversity and inclusion doesn’t mean hosting a single Pride night, selling rainbow-colored merchandise or modifying a brand logo. It’s a continuous commitment that requires consistent messaging — something the NHL has struggled to find, as evidenced by criticism the league received for prohibiting rainbow tape on players’ sticks before it reversed the decision last week.

Teams and leagues across the industry would be best served by working directly with experts in the field of diversity, equity and inclusion to map out a values-driven strategy and identify areas of weakness in their current infrastructure. Updating any diversity training materials with relevant examples would help as well.

While every major North American sports league has a chief diversity officer or a senior executive tasked with reaching new fans from different backgrounds, teams of all sizes and from all leagues should also have a high-level manager who proactively identifies problems rather than reacts to them after the damage is already done. If organizations want to appear more inclusive and potentially widen their fan bases, continued efforts to welcome underserved audiences would only be a smart move.

A headshot photograph of Mark J. Burns
Mark J. Burns
Sports Analyst

Mark J. Burns previously worked at Morning Consult as a sports analyst.

We want to hear from you. Reach out to this author or your Morning Consult team with any questions or comments.Contact Us