How Football has become America’s past time

Type in “America’s Past time”  at the web’s famous free dictionary, Wikipedia, and you get a historical analysis of the game that was said to be invented by a civil war general in the nineteenth century.  And while this may have been true through much of the twentieth century, one thing is clear now–football, and specifically the NFL, has taken baseball’s place in the hearts and souls of the American sports fan.  On Friday, on my way home from work, I listened to a local sports radio talk show, The Gambo and Ash Show, debate exactly why this happened, determined to pinpoint the one moment or factor that caused America to transition from a baseball first society to a country of NFL zombies.   After much thought on the matter, and after research confirmed that not much was written on the topic, I decided to write a column discussing exactly what has caused fans to shift their loyalties.

During the talk show, these radio hosts noted that last season, in preparation for the draft, the NFL network drew almost two million more fans to watch the combinethan ESPN was able to get for three baseball games combined that same week.  Think about that for a second–not the NFL draft, which has become a mega-ratings event in it’s own right, but the combine, which features dudes running the 40 while another dude times it on a stopwatch, fascinating television indeed.  That is mind boggling to me, both because it speaks to the insane popularity of the NFL and just how much baseball has slipped in the hearts and minds of the American people.  One of the talk show hosts insisted on picking that one moment where America made the shift from baseball fanatic to football junkie.   While I do think one moment stands out, which I will discuss below, as with all culture shifts in society, the transition was a bit more gradual and can be attributed to multiple factors.  Since so little was written on the topic, and because I’m still a huge baseball fan (though it doesn’t escape even my attention that almost all of my writings to date have been on on football), I decided to pen my thoughts on the matter.  Since we like top ten lists, I have come up with ten factors that I think have triggered this cultural shift:

1.  1994.  This was a key year in the MLB-NFL landscape shift for two reasons.  First, Major League baseball went on strike and canceled the World Series.  Talk to anyone in the sports-television business, and they will tell you every sport generates infinitely more ratings in the postseason, where these tournaments appeal to even the casual fan.   Couple this with the destructive effects of a strike on a sport, and this impact can not be understated.  The second event was a revolutionary product in the sports-television business that would change the way sports were viewed across the board–1994 was the year the NFL teamed with Direct-TV to launch it’s Prime Ticket–the first time fans could purchase a package that would allow them to watch any game they wanted regardless of where they lived.  At a time when TV executives were trying to force baseball fans to watch their “game of the week,” the NFL figured out a way to bring to the viewer the games the fans actually wanted to see.   Couple this with the explosion in the high performance television market, and the NFL was clearly ahead of the curve.

2.  The pace of the game.  We now live in the most hectic of times, with less and less free time each year.  Football is a high paced game where at any second an explosive play can lead to a touchdown.  Baseball, on the other hand, is a chess match of mind games that often feature tosses to first base, batters stepping out to get the sign, and long slow trips to the mound by the manager to discuss god knows what.  The generation that now has picture in picture and the NFL Redzone, the same one that gets instant information from the internet on hand held devices, and the one that now works more hours with less free time, has simply has lost patience with the slow pace of baseball.

3.  Americans love violence.  Have you ever seen baseball commercials where they try and focus on collisions at the plate or a runner taking out a shortstop on a double play ball?  There is a reason for this:  Americans love violence, and MLB officials have tried to capitalize on this where possible.   The problem is, while there are a few of these plays in each baseball game, football is a violent contact sport for a full 60 minutes.  The same rubber necking crowd that watches NASCAR to see a gruesome wreck or the MMA to hear a bone break, tune in to see if helmet-clad gladiators can decapitate each other.    Want proof of this, go to Google and type in “NFL’s hardest hits” and you will get pages and pages of online videos and DVD’s for sale glorifying the violence in this sport (and don’t think for a minute the NFL isn’t intentionally cashing in on this).

4. Gambling.  Americans love to gamble.  The record bet on the Superbowl is around $100 million dollars.  And while it’s true that you can bet on all sports, football just lends itself to betting better than any other–there is one game a week, with a simple betting line which is easy to understand– Pittsburgh is favored to beat Cleveland by 7 points.  In baseball, you get some stupid line of 5 1/2 – 6 1/2, meaningless to all but the hardcore gambling junkie.  And with just the one game a week, it’s easier to conduct research on things like injuries before placing your wager, seen as a key by many in placing a smart wager.

5.  Fantasy Football.  Yes, every sport has it, and millions of Americans even play fantasy baseball.  As someone who has played both, I can tell you that fantasy sports simply works better for football than it does for baseball, mostly for the same reason that gambling is more appealing in football.  With games played every day in MLB baseball, fantasy baseball becomes almost like a second job, and for all those busy people I talked about in # 2 above, it’s just too much.  One game a week with one lineup to turn in to the commissioner is all a fantasy football owner need do most weeks.  Fantasy baseball, on the other hand, requires constant daily attention altering lineups for injured players and those out of the lineup because of off days.  This is simply requires too much time for many fans.

6.  Marketing of the product.  I touched on this above in #1, but the NFL also did one other thing that I think was absolutely brilliant–for years, the NFL televised all of their games on free television on Sundays when most of America was not working.  Sure baseball had the game of the week on Saturdays (which disappeared for a while, but eventually returned to FOX who has completely screwed it up–hey Fox, just because I live in Arizona, it doesn’t mean I only want to watch NL West games).  As things stand now, most televised baseball games are during the week at night, when many are returning home from work, making dinner, etc.  Making matters worse, most MLB games are now televised on cable television, meaning that these games are now broadcast to smaller audiences.  Bottom line-advertise your product to fewer people and less people will consume it.

7.  Format of the season.  I think this is a very important factor in the NFL’s popularity.  For years, Major League Baseball played a 162 game season with just four teams making the playoffs.  First, 162 games is just too many for fans to attempt to watch, even  for its hardcore fans.   And, as I discussed above, since most fans watch sports for the championship pursuit, a playoff tournament of just four teams necessarily excludes most fan bases at a time when the sport typically generates its biggest audiences.  Even after baseball expanded the playoff format, the percentage of teams that get in is still lower in baseball than it is in any of the other professional sports.  Add to this that MLB showcases its highest rated games during the week at night after most adults and kids are winding down in preparation for work or school the next day, and it’s not hard to see how interest has waned.

A double standard regarding steroids exists in the NFL and MLB because of the importance of stats to the latter, which is one of the reasons fans crucified this guy.

8.  Steroid abuse in baseball.  It’s hard to write a column about the problems of MLB without using the “s” word.  Are players in the NFL juicing as well?  Of course they are, human beings aren’t naturally 5′ 10″ and 330 lbs.  But I would argue most people don’t care because we just sort of accepted it as part of the business of football–a physical game of gladiators that functions on a very basic brute strength level.  But there is also something else at play here–statistics are much more important in baseball than they are in football.  The perception, whether fair or not, is that Barry Bonds [alleged] use of steroids contributed to his breaking of Hank Aaron’s all time home run record.  No one cares if the left tackle for the Jaguars compiles more pancake blocks because he’s injecting some funny stuff in his bum.  In fact, my guess is that the perception of the average fan is that everyone is probably using steroids in football to deal with the punishing nature of the game.  Part of baseball’s steroid problem is the perception that only some are juicing, which makes it seem more like cheating.

9.  NFL’s use of technology and baseball’s staunch refusal to do so.  I think there are probably 74 devices that start with “i something,” and some people have all of them.  Americans love their gizmos–their HD tv’s, their i-phones, i pads, PDA’s, etc.  As I discussed above, the NFL was the first to package their games on satellite TV, which was a huge advantage.  But it’s more than this–the NFL was the first of the major sports to utilize instant replay, reverse camera angles, that neat yellow line that you see on TV to indicate a first down to name a few.  And what of technology in baseball you ask?  Only years after listening to fans scream about blown home run calls did they finally implement instant replay in this limited instance.   Baseball may think it’s nostalgic and traditional for humans to make calls, but fans don’t (a trivial question once suggested that there is approximately 44,000 blown calls in baseball each year, albeit most of this is a judgment of balls and strikes).  We now live in an age where fans can see some games in high definition on portable devices that fit in their pocket, and when some fan sitting on the subway in the Bronx knows that the ground ball hit down the third base line called fair wasn’t, something is wrong.  Just my opinion, but by keeping with tradition, baseball is choosing to pander to the older fan whose idea of cellular technology is this.

10.  The existence of an alternate product functions to boost viewership.  Here, I’m talking about college football played on Saturdays.  The reason I think this is an advantage is because, while a different product, I believe college football functions to bring some viewers to the NFL that otherwise might not be fans.  This is so because some college fans are fans only because they went to that school and attending football is a social event, expanding the base of fans interested in football generally.  I also think some of these fans then follow their favorite players into the NFL, a cross-over effect if you will.  While baseball does have the minor leagues , the product is thought to be seriously inferior to major league baseball, and the large number of teams and leagues is confusing to the average fan.  And if you are thinking about college baseball, forget about it, as no one watches college baseball (the local team in Tempe will let you into the games for free in the fifth inning despite the fact that Arizona State typically has one of the best college baseball programs in the country every year).  And besides, because there are so many games in baseball that span six months, there really wouldn’t be room for a complimentary league anyway.

While some may want to pinpoint that one moment where America made a shift from a baseball first fan-base to a football one, I believe the shift is a cultural one that takes into account the very factors that have changed how Americans live their lives, which in turn, affects when and how they view sports.  Part of the reason that Americans prefer football is endemic to the nature of the game itself, while still another part of the explanation is the strategic decisions that allowed the NFL to capture the attention of the technology-driven fan who finds him or herself with less free time to consume sports entertainment.

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Categories: Major League Baseball, National Football League

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3 replies

  1. I think point 3 is more a love of harmless violence than real violence. With the incidence of paralysis relatively low, indulgence in major hits appeared to be harmless. (which is why the NFL is scared s**tless with regard to head trauma)

    Also, football is practically made for TV. With perfect camera angles, natural stops and predictable actions sequences easily trump the only advantage baseball had: nostalgia.

  2. I don’t know Vandiver. Ever get stuck on the highway behind a bunch of people trying to see if someone was seriously hurt in a car accident? That doesn’t seem like a harmless injury to me.

    As for football being made for TV, I’m not sure I agree. The quarterback drops back, releases the ball, and all we can see on the other end is that the guy either is or is not wide open, but we have no idea how. To me, that’s why I love watching football games live, and preferably from the upper deck, so I can see a play develop. In that regard, I don’t think television is ideal for football.

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