On this biggest sports day of the year, the Super Bowl, I pondered why NFL football remains America’s #1 sport.
NFL football became America’s #1 sport through a variety of complex, interwoven and additive reasons as analyzed here in the Bleacher Report. The reasons why it has remained so, and only widened the gap, are a little different, in my opinion. The latest survey from Harris for ESPN shows some interesting demographic divides among the popular sports, though, but it’s not these demographics I’m looking at, rather the overall results. Finally, I have to be clear that #1 is for watching and interest, not participation. That belongs to soccer, probably for its ease to be able to play without huge costs for gear and facilities to play in.
Have you noticed how the major North American sports are generally short attention span sports? I often explain to people who wonder why so many people like the major North American sports, especially baseball, with the reason that North Americans like “ADD sports”, with ADD being attention deficit disorder. It’s a cynical explanation with half joking intent, but the other half is not. It’s completely true! You’re constantly tuning in and out of the game, unlike something like soccer that is continuous aside from a few natural stoppages. There is no single play starts and stops, one pitch at a time moments, quick possessions dictated by a 24 second clock, even a 40 second one at the college level! Hockey has some continuity, but there are still lots of face-offs for stoppages.
Yet, I believe football has remained number 1 in part because of its focus. There is one game per week for most teams, with the occasional week off per season. Most of them also occur on Sunday, the unofficial day of rest for most people, so it can be watched. And when teams don’t play on Sunday, it is under the spotlight as the national game rather than a left over game. Those Thursday and Monday night games help keep the league in the spotlight like games in other sports that go all week, with some on most nights of the year. But the one game a week help people focus and dedicate the proper time needed to follow the NFL in an ever time demanding life.
Games all matter
In the NFL, every single game matters with only 16 during the season. Whether it’s home advantage, wild card playoffs, draft positions or just to prove what you’re worth as a player, every game really matters. With 82 games a season for NHL hockey and NBA basketball, and a huge 162 per NL and AL baseball, there are so many games that doesn’t matter nearly as much any NFL football game. Of course, the athletes will say they all matter, but from a fan perspective, a lot of games just don’t matter that much. Very few NHL, NBA and MLB fans fret over every game like NFL fans because those games just don’t have that much consequence individually as the NFL games.
Rivalries captivate people, even those who aren’t fans to make them so. When the NBA had Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, then Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas and others, they were stellar, though depending on what source you checked, the NFL may still have been the #1 sport. However, today, there isn’t rivalries in other leagues as there are in the NFL. Manning and Brady is definitely a feature rivalry in the NFL, mostly Peyton Manning, but also Eli Manning who has beaten Brady twice in very memorable Super Bowls. It’s like Eli has had his brother’s back against Tom given Tom has a dominating record against Peyton (though 1-2 versus Peyton in AFC championship games).
Then now you have the Seahawks and 49ers with their coaches and teams hating each other. And all the possible divisional rivalries are alive and well, no matter what the fortune of the teams may be. Ever notice how much closer scores of the divisional games are against predictions… even those that factor in the divisional skew on scores being much closer than what records and talent on the teams may indicate!
In a way, rivalries are focal points, so it’s focus once again.
One game championships and playoffs
Despite what some might think about series being better to build fan interest, truth be known, in America likes its do or die moments just like there are in its favourite sports with the pitch by pitch confrontations. Yet, the other three major American sports have series for playoffs and championships, not single winner take all games. College football and basketball have one and done style playoffs, and look at how massively popular those “tournaments” are! NFL football is the only major American professional sport that has a one and done playoff and championship game with the Super Bowl, and that, my friends, is focus!
Something for everyone
There are more players on a football team than in any other of the big 4 professional sports in North America. That’s probably true for any other sport in the world. Along with players, there is also a greater diverse skill set required of the players, and a greater range of body types among the players. So no matter what skill set you might have, or what body type you might be, you can find someone in the NFL to idolize.
On a different matter with the Super Bowl, the theme remains the same. Look at all the hoopla surrounding the Super Bowl. You don’t have to care for the sport, but you might care for the commercials or the half-time show, or just another reason to party! There is really something for everyone!
Serious social experiences
Humans are social creatures, and NFL football games are truly social occasions like those in no other sports. When you only have one game to cheer for each week for your team, it’s very feasible to dedicate some focused time to it for socializing, whether in a tailgating party at the game or otherwise at a bar, friends’ places or elsewhere. You don’t tell social party stories around other sporting events like those of football, especially the Super Bowl parties. You just can’t do that for a 4 or 7 game series! There just aren’t parties like football parties! Even if you follow the three days a week of Thursday, Sunday and Monday football, it’s manageable and fun with each game mattering. The socializing is serious, and yields memorable experiences, unlike just another baseball game you go to, or hockey or basketball. The stadiums are also huge in comparison, which is a social experience of its own.
A small factor, but I believe an important one, is that the NFL has more teams than any other of the big 4 pro sport leagues in North America, 32 versus 30 for the other sports. In a sport that requires more than twice the number of players per team than any other of those sports, the NFL having more teams means there are more players to cheer for, more teams to cheer for, and just more to cheer for. The strong rivalries, including all the divisional ones that are strong, just aren’t present in any other sports.
Of the reasons I have presented, I would say it comes down to focus, variety and the social experience as to why the NFL is America’s #1 sport. The first two may seem contradictory, with focus and variety, but truth is it’s more things to potentially focus on so everyone can. Finally, the superior social experience is something that humans naturally gravitate towards, being the social creatures that we are.
Enjoy the game, go Broncos!