For now, NFL team owners say they’re supporting players’ freedom to protest. That’s a turnabout from 2017, when President Trump criticized league players for kneeling during the national anthem, and the owners scrambled to purge player activism.

But the National Football League’s newfound appreciation for its players’ civil rights gestures is likely to be tested by the election season and by fans’ spending power. Black players comprise two-thirds of the league — but Republicans still disapprove of the protests. Here’s why NFL owners are betting that most of their paying customers will accept protests.

The NFL’s reversal on player protesting

NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell has promised that the League “is going to support the players” protesting police violence this fall. NFL sponsors like Pepsi and FedEx reportedly pressed the owners to appear more liberal on race and policing. Both the league and individual teams have been rolling out statements and donations to signal concern over racial injustice.

The NFL’s about-face reveals how much public opinion has shifted on racial disparities on policing and athlete protests. Last month, when professional basketball players went on strike after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., National Basketball Association management supported the players, and the professional baseball and soccer leagues followed suit. In a subsequent YouGov poll, 47 percent of U.S. adults said they approved of postponing athletic events in protest of police brutality, and just 38 percent were opposed. Among independent voters, 42 percent approved and 40 percent disapproved. A new Washington Post poll reports a majority of Americans and a majority of self-described football fans think kneeling during the national anthem is acceptable.

Brace for Trump

NFL player protests mean renewed anger from the political right. As commentator Peter King told Goodell: “The president is going to hit you with a two-by-four.” Trump and his surrogates are already denouncing the NFL owners’ newly permissive stance.

Trump’s base is with him. In the YouGov poll mentioned above, 63 percent of Republicans disapproved of postponing games to protest police brutality and just 19 percent approved. Trump is betting on a backlash against policing protests among moderates that will favor him in the November election.

Further, the president and the NFL owners may also clash over the coronavirus. Trump has pressured collegiate conferences to hold football games this fall to show that the pandemic is ending. The NFL is running more risks with covid-19 than other professional sports leagues. If that strategy fails, Trump may excoriate the NFL for pulling players off the field.

How right wing are football fans?

The NFL owners are sensitive to Trump’s public criticism in part because of who they are. The team owners are mostly GOP donors. Several are Trump patrons.

So how beholden is the NFL to right-wing customers?

To answer that question, I turned to a 2015 marketing survey. I chose 2015 to examine the NFL customer base before the protest controversy began. I later found that post-protest data was similar.

Market researchers asked about 25,000 U.S. adults these three questions: Have you ever attended an NFL game? Have you watched an NFL program in the last 12 months? Have you purchased NFL-branded apparel in the last 12 months?

I zeroed in on two groups of survey respondents: Republicans and Black Americans. These categories are not mutually exclusive. However, the analysis is unchanged after accounting for a tiny overlap. I chose these two groups because their opposing views about police violence and athlete protests have scarcely changed since 2015. Non-Black Democrats and independents’ opinions have been more fluid; owners will have a harder time predicting their responses to NFL policy shifts.

If the NFL owners side with protesting players over the president, they risk losing Republican fans. If the owners side with the president, they risk losing Black fans.

Republican fans, Black fans

Both Republicans and African Americans watch the NFL at higher-than-average rates. Forty-six percent of Republican respondents told marketers they had watched the NFL in the last year. That’s a little more than the 43 percent of Black Americans who tuned in during the same period. Of all other U.S. residents, only 38 percent are NFL viewers.

As a result, both Republicans and Black Americans are overrepresented in the NFL audience. In the figures below, you can see what percentage each demographic makes up of U.S. adults, of NFL watchers, and of people buying NFL apparel and going to NFL games.

As you can see, the NFL does not have overwhelmingly right-wing fans; Republicans make up only 25 percent of U.S. residents and 29 percent of NFL watchers. However, African Americans have an even smaller share of both, making up 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of NFL watchers.

Republicans contribute disproportionately to the NFL’s revenue. Republicans skew wealthier, and they account for 31 percent of the buyers of NFL apparel and 32 percent of the fans in the stands. African Americans have a lower income distribution and are underrepresented in these lucrative categories.

NFL stadium crowds’ conservative bent was on display for Thursday’s season opener in Kansas City, Mo. When the players held a moment of silence to honor the “fight for equality in our country,” the crowd booed, as you can hear in the video clip at the link.

The marketing data suggests why the NFL owners initially leaned toward Republican customers over Black customers. Both groups have avid fans. Republicans are more numerous and buy more expensive things.

Data also show a business rationale for the owners’ change of heart. Most NFL fans are neither Republicans who steadfastly oppose protests nor Black Americans who supported the players early on. NFL owners are betting that the customers who now sympathize with player protests and Black fans together account for more revenue than lost Republican fans. This election season will stress-test that decision.

Bethany Lacina (@bethany_lacina) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Rochester.