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Is Football on Its Deathbed?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Lawsuits over players’ brain injuries have some saying football is dead. In fact, it has dislodged baseball as the national pastime and will remain America’s passion for decades to come.

“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.

Popularity Contest

Most importantly, 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 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, explains that of the 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.

Three Super Bowls join the finale of 'MASH’ as the most-watched television programs in American TV history.

The NFL proudly reported last 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 season.

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 who 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 pathway for 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 ambassadors for the sport. Football culture — complete with sports bars crowded with super-sized TVs streaming the colorful flashes and blurs of American football — has already 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 become.”

Money Maker

Football’s popularity has resulted in a financial windfall. 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.

In 1904, there were 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries on football fields.

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 reporter explained, 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 to be 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 resulted in “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,” Klein reports.

By 1905, several prominent schools had 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 protective padding.

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.

Many Mexican universities have football teams, just like their counterparts north of the border.

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 that the equipment is safe and that he is wearing it properly. Across all levels, new awareness campaigns are aiding parents, coaches, and players in recognizing the warning signs of concussions. Additionally, the NFL-backed Heads Up education campaign is helping those who care about football understand the right and wrong ways 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 ram.

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 supportive: overall, 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.

Alan W. Dowd writes on public policy — and sometimes sports.

FURTHER READING: Dowd also writes “A Bigger Ten: In Defense of Conference Expansion,” “Measuring Freedom around the World,” and “Retiring the World’s Policeman.” Joseph Epstein examines “Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question,” Nick Schulz notes “How the Progressives Almost Killed Football,” and Daniel Hanson asks “Is NCAA Amateurism a Sham?

 

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

 

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