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), 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. [cont’d.]