America just can’t quit football. The ratings keep getting better as the sport’s scandals get bigger.

January 24, 2022, 9:27 PM UTC

The NFL has spent the past decade mired in controversy. It’s been accused of ignoring traumatic brain injuries in players, shrugging off domestic abuse and sexual assault, and blackballing Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee against systemic racism. Even former President Donald Trump announced at one point that he was done with football

But Americans just can’t get enough of it. 

“Americans are generally very concerned about concussions and the inherent dangers of the game. They don’t have positive views of NFL management,” John Cluverius, associate director for the Center for Public Opinion at University of Massachusetts Lowell, told Fortune. “But nonetheless, people can’t stop watching. They love the game and they love watching the game.”

CBS’s broadcast of the instant-classic Sunday night divisional playoff game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills averaged 34.5 million total viewers, per early numbers. That’s up a full 20% from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints game on Fox a year ago. 

The game was a nail-biter, with three lead changes in the final two minutes of play before Kansas City prevailed in overtime. “Game of the year,” tweeted Myles Garrett, defensive end for the Cleveland Browns.

Several media outlets trumpeted it as the conclusion to the “best playoff football weekend ever,” as all four games came down to the wire. Aaron Rodgers may have played his last game as a Packer and Tom Brady might have also played his final game after 22 seasons in the NFL.

The Kansas City-Buffalo numbers blew away the previous season-high from just the week before, when 28.9 million viewers watched Kansas City’s 42-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on NBC, according to Nielsen. 

The record-shattering postseason ratings cap off a stellar season for the NFL overall in terms of ratings. The 272 regular-season games averaged 17.1 million viewers over television and digital platforms, a 10% increase over 2020 and the league’s highest average since 2015. During the season, NFL games accounted for 91 of the top 100 telecasts on television, according to Nielsen. Local TV ratings, which have been less of a bright spot for the NFL, also increased in 21 of the league’s 32 markets.

The NFL lost roughly $4 billion in revenue in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s expecting to recover from that this year, with new income from added games during the regular season and an expansion of legal sports betting

These numbers don’t seem to add up with public sentiment. While polls consistently show that Americans don’t support actions that the NFL has taken against protesting players, and that Trump supporters no longer favor the sports league, people can’t seem to look away. 

Football is the most popular sport to watch in America by far. A 2021 Ipsos poll asked Americans if they were fans of various sports. A majority, 51%, said they were fans of professional football; no other sport even cracked 40%. Football was popular among nearly all demographics. The poll found that 51% of Democrats are fans of the NFL and 50% of Republicans are. About 55% of independents are fans. Football was also equally favored by Black and white Americans. 

Cluverius found in his own polling that 37% of people with advanced degrees and 38% of people without high school diplomas say football is their favorite sport to watch. 

And while 61% of the Americans polled by Cluverius agreed that domestic violence is a major problem in the NFL, 25% of female fans said their interest in the sport had increased over the past few years, compared to 12% who reported a decrease in interest. 

NFL fandom is as core to Americans’ identities as their political party, said Cluverius. 

“People pick their teams at a very young age, and it’s usually inherited from their parents. They stay with that team for their whole lives. NFL fandom is the closest thing we have in public opinion that resembles the exact same dynamic as political partisanship.” 

Still, Cluverius told Fortune he often becomes perplexed by his poll results. “If you explained the NFL to a marketing person and said, ‘we have an institution that is rife with scandal, whose most known players are in the headlines for either political or personal controversy, whose management is probably the most reactionary among the major sports leagues’ they wouldn’t believe that it’s the most popular sport in the country.”

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