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Is football on a glide path to obscurity?

This post argues football may be about to experience a long, slow decline in popularity. First, two disclosures about why I may be predisposed to believing this - and one very important point of emphasis. Disclosures: 1) I am a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan, and since they returned to the NFL in 1999 they have been hopeless and embarrassing (one fluke playoff season excepted). Watching year after year of lousy football is enough to make anyone question his interest in the sport. 2) The Browns owner has a big financial stake in fracking, and I find it hard to cheer for a team whose success will benefit someone visiting environmental hazard on his fan base.

The point of emphasis is this, and I’M PUTTING IT IN BOLD CAPS BECAUSE I CAN ALREADY SEE PEOPLE MISSING IT: The decline in interest will be among casual fans, not hard core ones. Those who played in high school, go to fan sites throughout the day, listen to sports talk radio, obsess over their fantasy teams, etc. will continue to be big fans. My argument concerns not those people, but the ones on the margins.

The main reason I think football will start becoming less popular is because of the increasing awareness of the long term damage it can inflict. A sport that society decides is too violent cannot be a national pastime. It can still be very popular and profitable, just unable create cultural moments.

Consider boxing: In the early decades of the 20th century it was arguably the most popular sport in America, rivaled only by baseball. Look at the accounts of matches like 1927’s Tunney vs. Dempsey match or 1938’s Louis vs. Schmeling - they brought in huge numbers of spectators and money, and transfixed the nation. Even through Muhammad Ali’s prime - through, say, 1975’s Thrilla in Manila - a boxing match could still be at the center the country’s of attention. After that, though, boxing drifted from center stage.

Even the sport’s aficionados admit as much. Seeing the toll it took on Ali may have turned some off the sport. Or perhaps an even more dramatic event did: In 1982 I enthusiastically watched what turned out to be a man getting beaten to death. I lost my taste for the sport at that point and haven’t watched a match since; I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

While there haven’t been any on-field deaths in the NFL (though stories like this are not unheard of) (SEE UPDATE), the long term damage the sport can inflict is becoming much better understood. Statistics aside, it’s hard to miss the poignancy of the suicides of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau - or not think of some unflattering company they put the NFL in. The more that information like that gets diffused through the culture, the more casual fans will lose their attachment to it. As with boxing.

There are other issues as well. One is the slow migration of the game off of free airwaves, though this is not happening as much at the pro level. I just began my first football season since the 80s without cable TV, and have been surprised at just how much of the college game has migrated there. It used to be that starting at noon Saturday there was a pretty full slate of games to choose from on the networks. That’s down to a smaller division regional game at noon, and maybe a single big conference matchup. Later in the afternoon there’s usually a couple better games on, but nothing like the abundance there used to be. Even their postseason games - all the way to the championship game itself - have moved behind the cable paywall.

That may well be the more profitable move, but it’s also the move of a niche player - not a universal one. If you’ve got your base locked in and little prospect of drawing in anyone beyond that, then squeeze the die hards for as much as you can. Again, think boxing: the biggest fights are on pay per view. The more that dynamic plays out in football, the more the sport goes to the periphery of American life. Again, that’s more a college football phenomenon than an NFL one, though the latter has begun putting more of its games on cable as well.

Finally, there are two changes independent of the sport. The first is the decline of daily newspapers. Sports sections give casual fans a way to interact with their teams. For a sport that has only one game per week, sustaining interest is a pretty big deal. Getting a daily fix from the paper is a great way to do that. Yes, these papers still have online operations, but people browse the Internet differently than they read newspapers. For one, newspapers are self-contained. You can’t click on a few related hyperlinks end up God knows where. Instead, you read the paper until you’re done with it - and usually in an orderly fashion. Start with one section, read the next one, and so on. That gives readers a much better chance of getting even a passing look at sports news. Eliminate that and there’s one less way to keep in touch.

The other change is with the next generation of potential fans: they live in an on-demand world, and they’ve come to like it. I’ve seen it first hand with my own children. Instead of watching series when they air, they watch whole seasons of other shows on video services, or play video games. Neither of those makes you wait around for airtime. And no, this is not the place in the post where I start complaining about Kids These Days. The technology was put in front of them; they got used to it and have come to prefer it. If I was a kid now I’d probably be doing the same thing.

But those expectations are death on an industry that asks its fans to wait until kickoff and watch games in real time. If today’s young people can’t be sold on that, the football audience is almost guaranteed to be much smaller twenty years from now. Because at that point we’re not talking about loving it or hating it, about any moral or political implications to the sport. At that point we’re talking about indifference. Football can overcome a lot of bad publicity, but a generational shrug of the shoulders will permanently diminish it.

None of that is guaranteed to happen, of course. Football might continue for many decades as the most popular sport in America. But I think most people take that popularity for granted, to the point of not even being able to imagine it not being the case. A popular sport can slowly recede from the popular imagination, though. Growing awareness of the violence of football, its migration off free TV, the erosion of a key channel for keeping people connected to it, and the generational change in entertainment choices all might combine to gradually sap its popularity over a period of years.

And if that happens - if football leaves the spotlight and goes from being one of the lead actors in American cultural life to a walk on role - that’s when the Browns will finally win a Super Bowl.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenter JWL for mentioning the death of Detroit receiver Chuck Hughes. Posts on his death here and here. This video appears to be some kind of official highlight reel of the game, though it doesn’t say the source. Note that in a nearly four minute clip, Hughes’ death is relegated to a ten second footnote at the end.

Reader Comments (9)

Well written piece with some excellent observations. I too have considered the boxing popularity curve as an indicator of future interests and agree with your conclusions. You have gone farther than my thoughts on this and I appreciate your efforts. I'm at an age where I just wonder if I'll be around long enough to see what actually happens.

September 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdave miller

Thanks for the kind words, Dave!

September 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan

The decline of boxing has been paired with the rise of MMA though, an equally violent sport.

September 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIceman

Sure Iceman, but MMA isn't really on the cultural radar either.

September 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan

A receiver for the Detroit Lions did die during the course of a game in the late 60's, although the cause of death was determined to be heart failure. If memory serves (no time to Google) his name was Charlie Hughes, and he suffered a fatal heart attack after being hit. I believe it was the result of an undiagnosed congenital condition, and for that reason is never cited as a on-field fatality. I recall the tragedy primarily because years later a teammate of Hughes, linebacker Wayne Walker, spoke of the tremendous impact Hughes death had on his own decision to retire. Walker went on to enjoy a career as a popular sports broadcaster in the Bay Area, and spoke of Hughes publicly shortly before retiring from that job.

September 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJWL

Thanks so much for that, JWL. I've updated the post.

September 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan

I sure hope so, and not just for the injuries and the exploitative nature of the NCAA system that feeds it.

The NFL's rabid license enforcement is annoying and deserves to backfire. My newscast can't use even two seconds of an NFL game without paying exorbitant fees? Fine. We won't show any, ever.

In conversation, I've stopped calling it "football." It's "NFLball," which rhymes with "whiffle ball."

I hope within a generation's time, when an American says "football," it will be taken to mean what we now call "soccer."

September 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjust john

What has turned me off of the game is the more and more blatant greed and gouging these billionaires inflict on the fans. Can't afford a luxury box? Too bad! Thousands of dollars for ticket license fees for the privelege of buying season tickets, $40 parking, $12 dollar beers, $35 dollar logo caps... the message seems to be, "If you're worried about the price, we don't want you at the park" Fine, I'll find something else to watch. And let the billionaires pay for their own new stadiums.

September 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpaul

Thanks, John and Paul.

September 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan

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