Sports fans are often in a debate this time of year. The football regular season and the baseball post-season overlap with plenty of excitement to go around. An older generation virtually worshiped names like Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills, Nolan Ryan or Reggie Jackson.
They certainly knew about Deacon Jones, Merlin Olson, Jim Brown or Joe Namath, but when it came to discussion of their favorite sport, baseball always won hands down.
Back then—with most people having only one television set in the house—you almost never flipped the channel on an October weekend to watch Terry Bradshaw, Bob Lilly or Larry Csonka. It was all about Johnny Bench, Willie McCovey or Boog Powell and how far they would belt one—“…a waaay back”—over the fence.
That’s practically an eternity ago. Now, football for almost two generations has supplanted baseball as America’s number-one sport. Like the vaunted TV western which gave way to more edgy, topical situation comedies and sexy detective dramas, Major League Baseball (MLB) is no longer the “national pastime” because the National Football League (NFL) has, in 30 years, become one of the world’s biggest entertainment franchises.
Football has more fans
Last year, a Harris Poll found that 35 percent of sports fans called professional football their favorite sport, followed by pro baseball at 14 percent, college football (11 percent), auto racing (7 percent) and, trailing the pack, pro basketball and hockey at six and five percent respectively. There has been a steady decline of baseball fans since the same poll was taken in 1985, when the NFL bested MLB by just one percentage point (24 to 23 percent). But since then, interest in baseball has fallen while football appears to be a juggernaut that won’t be stopped.
Los Angeles sports fans have enjoyed championship titles aplenty. There are the Lakers with 11 championships, followed by the Dodgers with five, Kings (2) and the Angels and Ducks each with one championship trophy. The only local professional football team to win a championship was the Raiders, who took the Super Bowl title in 1983. And while local football fans await with bated breath the opportunity to again cheer on their favorite gridiron greats, the popularity of professional football for 20 years has remained as fervent in Los Angeles County as it is in any part of the nation.
According to the Harris poll, nine percent fewer fans called baseball their favorite sport over the 30-year span, representing the biggest drop of any sport. The numbers suggest that the sport has not recovered from a popularity standpoint from 21 years ago, when a strike forced cancellation of the World Series.
It’s the premier television sport
It seems to be more than the disruption of the famed “October Classic.” Every major American sport has had its share of strikes and lockouts. Football, however, has become the premier television sport and is no longer confined to Saturday (college) and Sunday afternoons. The aggressive marketing campaign of the NFL saw the enormous growth of popularity of Monday Night Football—so much so that fans demanded even more action and now games are played on Thursday night. So, if you miss the Sunday morning/afternoon schedule, you can catch the Sunday evening game. And in between, there are hours and hours of expert commentary, commercials, tweets and postings—most of which are licensed and/or endorsed by the NFL—all designed to make the fan experience so engaging that you may be inclined to immediately order a pizza, buy some beer or replace the venerable hot dogs for brats on the backyard grill.
Attending a football game or watching it at home has become a day-long “mini festival.” If they have a ticket, many fans will arrive at the stadium up to five hours before kickoff and take part in a tailgate party. Fans will typically surround a pick-up truck or SUV and grill food, enjoy beverages, socialize, dance to their favorite tunes, and often toss around a football or Frisbee just to get into the sporting mood. No other sport has the level of involvement in such an important pre-game ritual, and this may be a core reason why football is so popular.
Fantasy football grows
Over a 17-week football season, each team plays 16 contests which means that every game counts, when you are hoping to make the playoffs. Baseball includes 162 regular-season games and, depending on the talent level, by midseason some teams could easily be 15 or more games out of first place. That’s hardly a cause for a pre-game celebration. A highly-touted NFL team could lose two or three close games and miss the postseason altogether, but they remain in contention for a playoff spot for a longer period of time as the season progresses. Basically, every game may matter in pro football until the proverbial “writing is on the wall” meaning that the team is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
Fantasy Football is a popular Internet simulation. It involves you—and 10 or 12 of your friends (or millions of anonymous users from around the world)—getting together to hold a mock draft. You select a number of players to follow throughout the season and you’ll be matched with friends each day and play as if you were a team owner like Jerry Jones (Cowboys), Paul Allen (Seahawks), Mark Davis (Raiders) or Robert Kraft (Patriots).
Based on the real-life performance of your players, you get a certain amount of points, and the team that has the most points that week wins.
What happened to baseball?
Then there’s the Super Bowl. Unlike the other sports that play the best four out of seven games to determine the champion, all NFL teams play to appear in just one climactic contest. One mistake or misjudgment (i.e. the final play of Super Bowl XLIX) could be the difference between one team hoisting the trophy and the other facing a long summer.
The Super Bowl gets weeks and weeks of media coverage and the television commercials (up to $5 million for 30 seconds) have become social talking points. The half-time show is an event within itself. Trumpeter Al Hirt performed in the first one at the Coliseum in 1967 and now everyone from Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney have performed to a worldwide audience.
How did it happen? How did professional football surpass baseball on the way to international acclaim? Observations indicate that skilled market branding may be part of it. There is branding for every team, every logo, jersey, stadium and for practically everything even remotely connected to the NFL show. There’s even talk of a new franchise in London, England.
A myriad of explanations for the precipitous drop in the baseball fanbase have been theorized: increased online and mobile viewership, greater entertainment options provided by satellite and cable TV, increased use of DVR, video baseball games, etc. But these explanations over the years have left the NFL unscathed.
In 2013 at the reveal of their new game system, Xbox One, Microsoft announced a new partnership with the NFL that included new interactive experiences through the game system that included live updates of fantasy football side-by-side with the live games on the same home big screen. Microsoft even provides NFL teams with new technology such as Surface touch pads to review photos and make play calls. Meanwhile, MLB each year spends hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to keep any scrap of non-authorized use of its video off the Internet, an impractical effort that many observers believe may drive away potential fans. In 2013, the NFL dominated the television ratings the entire year; a Nielsen survey revealed that its top regular-season games received about a 15 percent viewership while the MLB’s biggest event, the World Series, only attracted 8.9 percent of the TV audience. About 114 million people watched the Super Bowl in January. About 56 million watched the World Series last October.
America’s pastime ‘too slow’?
A common explanation about baseball’s decline in popularity has always stemmed from the pace of the game. Experts say it simply does not mesh with America’s current style of entertainment consumption. In an age of instant gratification, today’s fans tend to desire entertainment that is fast-paced and straightforward. Baseball is slow—almost novel-like—where its power lies in the accumulation and appreciation of moments (e.g. a grand slam, a no hitter, a “circus catch”). Football on the other hand depends on extensive strategy—the “quick,” or “ big play” excitement that may appeal to a broader audience. Some observers see baseball as the “chess” of the sports world with a pace and style of play no longer suitable for the increasingly short attention span of the modern sports consumer.
Also, baseball until the early 1980s really didn’t have competition from other professional sports and was able to rest on its image of the “Grand Old Game.” The MLB hierarchy didn’t have to maintain its audience because it was all the fans knew. But once the NFL’s popularity began to skyrocket, baseball, instead of changing to keep up, remained stuck in the past, according to a 2013 article in the Huffington Post. For instance, baseball is still catching up with the technological advances so common in other sports such as football, basketball or tennis. The NFL has included instant replay in all of its games since 1988. Calls are still missed, but the vast majority of correct calls are made by virtue of instant replay.
“Football is the best sport in the world,” said Jason Lewis, a veteran sports writer who regularly covers prep, college and professional football. “First, it takes extreme athleticism in football. Second, it’s a very complex game that involves intense concentration. And there is lots of action … from the kickoff to the final whistle. Everything an athlete needs, you can find in a football player.”
Classic look at two sports
The late comedian George Carlin had a routine which may explain the sheer drive and determination displayed on the gridiron in comparison to how western society has learned to set objectives and reach goals:
“Football is a 20th-century technological struggle.
Baseball is a 19th-century pastoral game.
Baseball begins in the spring … the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall … when everything is dying.
Football is rigidly timed, and it will end ‘even if we have to go to sudden death.’
Baseball has no time limit: ‘We don’t know when it’s gonna end.’
Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the ‘sacrifice.’
Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog … ‘can’t see the game … don’t know if there is a game going on. Mud on the field … can’t read the uniforms, can’t read the yard markers … ‘the struggle will continue.’
In baseball, when it rains: ‘We can’t go out to play. It’s raining.’
In football, you receive a ‘penalty.’
In baseball, you make an ‘error.’
In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the ‘field general,’ to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting the receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz … even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.
In baseball, the object is to go home … and to be safe: ‘I hope I’ll be safe at home.’”