If you look at traditional stats, football remains the biggest thing on TV. According to Nielsen, Super Bowl LVII was the most-watched broadcast of 2023 with 114.9 million viewers, while the rating report’s top 20 is littered with AFC and NFC matchups. In an era of splintered viewership and shady streaming stats — Netflix’s “hours viewed” updates remain as murky as ever — the NFL’s hold on attention can look as commanding as ever.
But in a new report commissioned by Polygon, data suggests that anime might be as culturally significant and widely viewed as the NFL, at least for a certain generation. In an era of $100-million-plus deals to bring football games to platforms like YouTube, Prime Video, and Peacock, the data raises questions about what could really make or break the “streaming wars.”
Surveying an audience sample of 4,275 Americans ages 18 and up, Polygon found that 42% of interviewees who identified as Gen Z say they watch anime weekly. It’s quite a margin compared to a recent study that found that only 25% of Gen Z participants followed the NFL. The demographic breakdowns are significant, with 25% of millennials, 12% of Gen X, and 3% of boomer participants saying they watch anime weekly.
The rise of anime interest and influence may be drawing viewers away from the dominant hold of the NFL, but it may also be the reason football still courts younger audiences over the next decade. In 2022, the Los Angeles Chargers cut its own anime-inspired promo video. Last year, former Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams declared himself the “First Swagg Kazekage” and the “leader of the Hidden Village of the Den,” which made Naruto fans scream.
Football’s 100-year domination over American attention has been fueled by tribalism — everyone has a team, and when the team plays, they show up. Polygon’s report data suggests similar instincts help anime become bigger than ever; more than half of anime fans polled have returned to a show they’ve already seen in the last 12 months, and more than half of millennial and Gen Z viewers say they have had a crush on an anime character. For these fans, anime is entertainment comfort food, and maybe something even deeper; based on results, over three in four Gen Z and millennial viewers say they use anime as an escape when they feel “overwhelmed, angry or sad.”
While devoted anime fans won’t be surprised to learn the thing they love is big, vibrant, and shared by more and more of the masses each day, the results should put to rest a particular tone of cultural commentary that considers an anime hit an anomaly. Of course Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero dominated a standard-issue Idris Elba thriller at the U.S. box office last August (and Elba probably knew it would, since he also loves anime). Obviously there is a Monkey D. Luffy balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade now. As defensive tackle Mike Daniels once described his passion for anime to a befuddled NFL.com, “It’s a way of life.”