What role can sports teams play in 2024 voter turnout?

Ash Center senior researcher Tova Wang and NFL Network analyst Scott Pioli answer questions about how sports teams can foster civic engagement.  

Alamy Stock Photo

3 min read

In recent years, professional sports teams have ramped up civic engagement initiatives — from voter education to get out the vote drives. These civic engagement efforts took a new turn during the 2020 election, when social distancing requirements during the pandemic encouraged local election officials to partner with sports teams to use stadiums as polling sites. As the country gears up for elections this November, will sports teams continue to play an important role in encouraging voter participation?  

The Ash Center sat down with Tova Wang, a senior researcher in democratic practice at the Ash Center and NFL Network analyst Scott Pioli to better understand what role teams can play in fostering civic engagement.  

The 2020 election first saw the widespread use of stadiums and arenas as polling locations. Looking back, how effective was the idea of using sports venues as polling sites? Did voters use them in large numbers?

Tova Wang: Stadium and arena voting was a huge success for everyone — election administrators, teams, and voters. Forty-eight professional basketball arenas, football stadiums, hockey arenas and baseball stadiums were used as voting centers. Use of stadiums and arenas made for shorter lines, easier parking, and a more enjoyable experience. A 2022 Post-UMD poll found 77 percent of Americans approved of using sports stadiums as voting sites in 2020. While we don’t know overall numbers, we do know that State Farm Arena alone, home to the Atlanta Hawks, processed 50,000 voters in 2020.

If the benefits to civic engagement are so clear. Why haven’t more teams launched civic engagement initiatives of their own? Is there any concern amongst teams that this work might be interpreted as overly political, especially in today’s hyper partisan political environment?

Scott Pioli: There are quite a few teams thathave incredible civic engagement programs and there are also groups like RISE working with teams on their civic engagement programs! But not many have made opening the space for voting a regular part of them. Now that we know how much of a contribution doing so is to the communities these teams and facilities serve, and how good teams are at doing it, it’s an easy way for teams to give back. And the interesting thing is that athletes promoting voting is not controversial. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that “while Americans are divided on whether athletes should speak out on behalf of social and political causes, a clear majority support them advocating for voting rights.” Nonpartisan activities to encourage voter participation are not controversial. That being said, I unfortunately think there are still some teams concerned about how polarizing this work has become — even when voting rights and access shouldn’t be.