The start of the football season provides an interesting window into American culture. The incredible hype surrounding the beginning of the NFL, following all of the fears there wouldn’t even be a season, only reinforces how football has become the most dominant sport in the country by a large margin.
It wasn’t always this way. For years, baseball was the “national pastime” and the most popular sport in the nation. Opening day used to attract the kind of attention that the first Sunday of football now receives. This past summer, however, talk about a possible NFL lockout subsumed discussion of the actual baseball season. What happened?
Throughout the first six decades of the 20th century, the three most important sports in the country were baseball, boxing, and horse racing. The World Series was the most important annual sporting event and the Super Bowl did not even exist. College football was actually more popular than pro football until at least the 1950s.
Pro football’s coming out party was the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 NFL Championship game between Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts and Frank Gifford’s New York Giants. One of the early games on TV, it ended in dramatic fashion as the Colts’ Alan Ameche scored on an one yard run in overtime. Many credit the exciting contest for raising the NFL’s profile.
The popularity of the sport grew during the 1960s as the rivalry between the newly-formed AFL and NFL eventually resulted in the merger that created the modern NFL at the end of the decade. The first Super Bowl, held in 1967 as a contest between the AFL and NFL champions, was not a major event, but quickly grew in the following years. The famous Super Bowl III victory of Joe Namath’s New York Jets, indicating the competitiveness of the AFL, was another marker in the sport’s rise. By the early 1970s, polls showed pro football ahead of baseball in popularity. The Super Bowl became the biggest sporting event in the nation, a virtual national holiday that even non-fans feel obliged to watch.
What else accounted for the rise? No doubt television was instrumental. While baseball has made a tremendous amount of money from TV, football is more suited to the medium. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who was probably the greatest pro sports commissioner, developed relationships with the networks in the 1960s that helped grow the sport. Moreover, the wealthy owners embraced a kind of socialism, equally distributing the television money so that Green Bay could be as competitive as New York. This helped to bring about parity between large-market and small-market teams, giving every fan hope at the start of each new season.
Still, as recently as the mid-1980s, football was still barely ahead of baseball in popularity. In 1985, a Harris Poll showed 24 percent of fans choosing pro football as their favorite sport while 23 percent chose baseball. By 2010, 35 percent picked the NFL while only 16 percent picked major league baseball.
I think a number of factors account for the growth in the gap. Clearly, baseball’s labor strife during this time, including multiple strikes and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, hurt the game. At the same time, the NFL had labor peace from 1987 to 2011, with no games lost to labor stoppages in that period.
Furthermore, football is a game more suited to the shorter attention spans of Generation X, raised on MTV and USA Today, and Generation Y, used to downloading music or receiving information immediately. The languid pace of baseball, which may account for declining Little League participation, doesn’t seem to suit those 40 and under.
On a personal note, I grew up a bigger baseball fan than football fan, but in recent years my allegiances have changed. I still love baseball, but it is a more difficult sport to follow as an adult. I enjoyed following the batting races and memorizing statistics as a kid, but I don’t have the time anymore. Part of the genius of football is that we can follow it by watching one day a week during the fall and winter, when the weather in most of the country precludes other activities