Even though Americans like watching football far more than any other sport, they don't necessarily want a longer NFL season.
An Associated Press-Knowledge Networks poll released Thursday shows only lukewarm backing at best for a switch from 16 to 18 regular-season games, one of the NFL's key — and easiest-to-understand — proposals in its labor negotiations with the players' union.
Of everyone surveyed, 27 percent strongly favor or somewhat favor adding two regular-season games and dropping two preseason games. When the group is narrowed to those identifying themselves as NFL fans, support for the change rises to a total of 45 percent — yet only 18 percent who strongly favor it.
And that's despite data that shows football clearly is king: 41 percent of everyone surveyed called it their favorite sport to watch, more than tripling the 13 percent who chose baseball. Basketball was nearly as popular as baseball, with 12 percent.
The NFL says its data shows fans like the idea of expanding the regular season. But Steven Keller, a 43-year-old from Crystal Lake, Ill., was among the 9 percent of football fans in the AP-Knowledge Networks survey who strongly oppose an 18-game schedule.
"There's plenty enough football as it is," Keller said. "Eighteen games is too many for the players. ... Those guys get beat up."
"No player wants to play 18 games," receiver Hines Ward said. "You're not thinking about the players' safety if you're trying to add two more games."
Linebacker James Harrison echoed that sentiment, saying: "You talk about adding two games, it's going to be a far cry to get a guy through a whole season healthy."
Among football fans, nearly four in 10 think the game has gotten more dangerous over the past five years.
Yet 31 percent of fans, and more than half of all the people polled, said they have heard nothing at all about the labor dispute between NFL owners and players, whose collective bargaining agreement expires in early March. There will be a formal bargaining session in the Dallas area on Saturday.
If a new deal can't be reached in time, owners could lock out the players, and it's possible next season could be affected.
"I am afraid," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said, "that games will be missed."
About three-quarters of those surveyed don't sympathize with either the NFL or players in the labor dispute. But those who were willing to choose sides were twice as likely to back the union over the owners.
"A work stoppage is not going to help anyone," said Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy, who was a vice president of the union in the 1980s while playing for the Washington Redskins. "I also realize when you get into a work stoppage situation, I think the fans don't like either side. It's kind of a pox on both sides. They just want to see football."
In other poll findings released Thursday:
— 72 percent of all those surveyed — and 64 percent of NFL fans — think players' salaries are too high;
— 59 percent of fans think the NFL is doing the right amount to prevent concussions;
— 53 percent of men who were surveyed, and 34 percent of women, consider themselves NFL fans;
— about a third of NFL fans say their interest in pro football has increased over the last five years.
The AP-Knowledge Networks Poll on football was conducted Jan. 21-26. It involved online interviews with 1,125 adults, including 482 who consider themselves fans of professional football. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points for all adults, 5.5 percentage points for football fans.
Respondents to the survey were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods. People selected who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access it at no cost to them.
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.