The American Magazine Online | 5.5.13
By Alan W. Dowd
“Football is dead in America,” Chicago Tribune columnist
John Kass writes,
“as dead as the Marlboro Man.” He adds that “if the professional game survives
at all, it will be relegated to the pile of trash sports, like mixed martial
arts or whatever is done in third-rate arenas with monster trucks and mud.” The
reason football is on its deathbed, according to Kass? Lawsuits. He reports
that “lawyers are circling” like vultures. “Some 4,000 former NFL players have
joined lawsuits against the league for allegedly hiding the dangers to the
brain.” As the lawsuits and injuries pile up, Kass predicts that fewer parents
will allow their sons to play the game, thus depriving the NFL of its lifeblood.
For football fans like me, Kass paints a depressing picture
in this obituary. But there are at least three factors Kass and other
doomsayers overlook about the state of football — factors that point toward Friday
nights, Saturday afternoons, and Sundays in autumn remaining the domain of
football for decades to come.
Most important of all, football is extremely popular in America. Kids like to
play the game; fans like to watch the game; and the game’s scope, scale, flow,
and drama make for great television.
That helps explain why football dominates TV. The Ravens-49ers Super Bowl
matchup in February was one of the most-watched TV events in U.S. history. In
fact, three Super Bowls join the finale of “MASH” as the most-watched
television programs in American TV history.
But it’s not just the big game that has Americans glued to their televisions.
David Bauder, TV writer for the Associated Press, explainsthat of 247 programs reaching at least 20 million live viewers between the
beginning of September 2010 and the end of January 2013, 136 were NFL games.
That’s 55 percent of the most-watched TV shows.
The NFL proudly reportedlast December that an NFL game was the most-watched show 16 times in 16 weeks,
and that NFL games represented 29 of the 30 most-watched TV shows during the 2012
Moreover, the NFL doesn’t even have to broadcast a game to attract viewers.
Coverage of the 2013 NFL draft muscled out almost everything else on
television, drawing 7.7
million viewers as the May sweeps period kicked off.
And it’s not just Americans that are mesmerized by the NFL
juggernaut. The NFL is carried by 62 global broadcasters in 31
languages — everywhere from Bermuda to Zimbabwe.
With some 17 million fans in Mexico, the NFL eagerly
promotes its product in Latin America,
partnering with Univision to broadcast games on radio, playing exhibition games
in Mexico, and even encouraging referees to explain penalties in Spanish from
time to time. The Los Angeles Times points out that the NFL Network is
available on basic cable in Mexico “and 40 movie theaters in 10 cities show
Monday night games live on the big screen.” Many Mexican universities have
football teams, just like their counterparts north of the border.
Across the Atlantic, the NFL Network reports that TV ratings
have jumped 91 percent in Britain in recent years, with Super Bowl viewership up
by 74 percent. The league boasts 11 million fans — including 2 million
classified as “avid fans” — in the land of Wimbledon and golf.
Across the Pacific, the NFL has developed a special pathwayfor Japanese athletes to try out for the league. The NFL has broadcasting partnerships in China to air key games,
and the league has even sent some of its veteran stars to China as ambassadorsfor the sport. Already, the football culture — complete with sports bars
crowded with super-sized TVs streaming the colorful flashes and blurs of American
football — has taken root in some parts of China. In fact, 44 Chinese
universities take to the gridiron to play American football.
Back here at home, baseball fans will never accept it, but the
consensus view among sports broadcasters is that football has dislodged
baseball as the national pastime. Writing last year, Frank Deford concluded,
“Baseball is still an extremely popular entertainment, but whoever wants to
know the taste and passion of America had better learn football.” To make his case,
Deford quoted the late Mary McGrory, the Pulitzer Prize–winning
columnist, who concluded, “Baseball is what we were. Football is what we have
Indeed, the NFL made $9.5 billion last year, compared to
Major League Baseball’s $7.5 billion.
However, anyone who watches TV on Saturday or reads the
paper Sunday morning knows that football’s popularity is not limited to the
professional ranks. At the college level, football is not just a revenue stream,
but rather a revenue torrent.
In 2010, top-tier college football programs — those
belonging to conferences like the Big Ten, Southeastern Conference, Big 12,
Atlantic Coast, and Pac-12 — netted $1.1 billion in revenue. “On average, each
team earned $15.8 million,” as CNN
reported. Programs like Texas, Michigan, Florida, and Penn State saw
one-year revenues in the $70-million range, some as high as $93 million.
Speaking of Penn State, the school’s recent trials and
tribulations give us a sense of how popular — and how economically important — football
is. When it appeared that the NCAA was contemplating shutting down the Penn
State football program after the Sandusky scandal came to light, scores of hotels,
restaurants, convenience stores, and retailers within 100 miles of Penn State’s
football stadium faced extinction.
These businesses count on football season — with its seven
home games and 107,000 ticket-buyers per game — to stay in the black. “The
adverse economic ripples from an empty Beaver Stadium would radiate throughout
central Pennsylvania,” one reporterexplained, pointing to “an estimated annual economic impact of $161.5 million”
on the state.
If Penn State’s football program has a ripple effect on the
surrounding economy, the NFL has a tsunami effect. In 2011, as USA
Today reported, the league supported 110,000 jobs in NFL cities; NFL games
added some $5 billion to the economies in NFL cities; and NFL programming
generated more than $3.2 billion in advertising revenue for the networks.
Ready to Reform
Finally, football has proven itself highly adaptable.
“At the turn of the 20th century,” Christopher Klein writes,
“America’s football gridirons were killing fields.” He describes how the game
was “lethally brutal” and often featured “wrenched spinal cords, crushed skulls,
and broken ribs that pierced [players’] hearts.” In 1904, there were 18 deaths
and 159 serious injuries on football fields. “The carnage appalled America,”
By 1905, several prominent schools dropped football. But
then President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged coaches and alumni to reform
football in order to save it. And they did just that, revamping the rules and
opening the way to advances in equipment. Dangerous formations and plays were
outlawed. Helmets spawned facemasks. The chest area and shoulders gained
In more recent years, high-tech braces have been added to
protect knees; AstroTurf has given way to FieldTurf, a softer, more forgiving,
grass-like surface; and again, people who care about football are putting their
heads together to reform the rules.
For instance, at the high school level, a player whose helmet
comes off cannot be engaged and cannot engage in contact. At the college level,
a player whose helmet comes off is required to leave the field of play to
ensure the equipment is safe and to make sure he is wearing it properly. Across
all levels, new awareness campaigns are aiding parents, coaches, and players in
recognizing the warning signs of concussions. Relatedly, the NFL-backed Heads Up education campaign is
helping those who care about football understand the right and wrong way to
block and tackle; developing certification standards to help leagues and
coaches teach football fundamentals the right way; and protecting players from
neck and head injuries. Likewise, the NFL has instituted a number of rules and
fines for unnecessary roughness and illegal hits. A new rule promulgated this
year bars a ball carrier from using the crown of his helmet as a battering
Still, the courts will have to decide whether the league hid
data on head injuries and how much implied risk a player takes on when he steps
on the field.
Kass is correct that football needs to capture the interest
of young kids — and needs to convince parents that the sport is safe. If the
numbers are any indication, kids are still interested and parents are still
there are 100,000 athletes playing college football, 1.3 million kids in high
school football, and 3.5 million in youth leagues. Pop Warner — a nationwide
youth football program founded in 1929 — says its membership “numbers are
continuing to grow.”
It seems that reports of football’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.