Gallup recently release its annual poll statistics on the type of sports Americans like to watch. For 2017, football was America’s favorite spectator sport, with a 37% share of the eyeballs. Note that the poll asked “what is your favorite sport to watch”, not “what is your favorite sport”, or “what is your favorite sport to watch or listen to”, or “what is your favorite sport to follow statistically (as in fantasy sports)”. This tends to bias the results to TV and in-stadium audiences, particularly in an era of television dominance through cable and the Internet, and against the sports bean counters of fantasy sports or fans of satellite, terrestrial, or Internet radio. Nevertheless the results are telling–football has maintained its dominance since the beginning of the Super Bowl era (1966), a position that hit has not relinquished with the rise in basketball fans during the 1980s and 1990s. It has also survived globalization, with sports like soccer, hockey, cricket, and rugby not making much of a dent in viewership.
Gallup marks 1972 as the seminal year where dominance was achieved, statistically a result of all other sports combined being less popular than football. But there is little doubt that football has been on a roll since just after WWII. Viewership peaked in 2008 at 43%, and since slid several percentage points in the intervening years. But football is still watched by more than than all other sports combined and three times as much as the nearest, basketball.
The reasons for football’s dominance likely are as numerous as the number of franchises the NFL has had since inception. But it is not hard to spot the rise in interest in the sport coinciding with the economic dominance of the Baby Boomer generation, the rise of the suburb and the exurb, and the decline of radio as a media channel.
The flight of Boomers to the suburbs meant that attending baseball games in urban arenas was a lot harder. The increase of alternatives to eye-share, such as the explosion of cable and satellite television and the media alternatives arising from the introduction of the Internet also made it hard to follow the 160 game season of baseball. Simultaneously the decline of the newspapers and radio, where baseball was once king, and the rise of television, also meant that the amount of airtime and live coverage from those media outlets declined precipitously. This worked in favor of football, where the “home run” replay in the form of a “back breaking tackles” or the “long pass completion” occurred significantly more often. Pace also mattered, with the slow pedantic movements of baseball being sidelined by the constant movement of football and the cross-court action of basketball.
In fact it can be argued that basketball’s 80 game season really holds down the popularity of the sport relative to football (16 games a season). Hockey, a lot less popular than baseball and not even part of the Gallup analysis, also has an 80 game season. It is so common for fans of both sports to not really pay attention till the playoffs (where half of the teams in each league make the post-season, versus one third of football franchises), that it makes it obvious that the regular seasons are there to pay the eye-popping salaries of the star players, as apposed to any sort of week-to-week drama.
While it is true that the NFL has wanted to extend the number of games in a season to 18, this still hardly allows for relevant comparison to other leagues. In fact it is likely that adding two weeks to the NFL schedule will likely erode more interest in the other leagues than it will in promoting audience fatigue and saturation. Meanwhile, although football can still benefit from diminishing marginal returns, it is hard to argue that adding games to basketball, baseball, or hockey will provide any benefits whatsoever.
It is also relevant to point out that while football has been losing eyeball share, so has basketball and baseball. Both the latter sports peaked in the 1990s. Global sports, particularly soccer, likely have chipped away at the lead of the Big 4, particularly with the heavy influx of soccer-loving Central and South American immigration of the last forty years. Concern in the 2010’s of athlete health, particularly in the area of CTE, has no doubt dimmed some enthusiasm for football. But it is just as likely that CTE will manifest itself in other contact sports like basketball, soccer, hockey, rugby, and Australian-rules football. So too has the waning influence of Boomers, yielding finally to Millennials in terms of economic importance.
Football’s dominance is such that the WWE’s Vince McMahaon has been rumored to be laying the groundwork for a restart of the XFL. Canadian Football League games are simulcast (via Canada’s TSN) on ESPN. Even the almost-defunct Arena Football League has been making an earnest Middle Atlantic-focused comeback with new owners. And with the NCAA’s four-team championship bracket, college football is more popular than ever.
It has been said that FIFA futboll (soccer) is the beautiful game. Well, at the most elite level, maybe it is. But among us Yankees, it looks like American-rules football will–for now and some time to come–remain the apple of our eyes.