The National Football League is a dominant cultural force in 2012. Perhaps the thing that brings this divided nation closest together on a regular basis. Think about it. The draft is an event. The start of the season is an event. The bye-weeks are events. The playoffs are an event. The Super Bowl is the biggest event of all. Life on Sundays (and Thursdays and Mondays) pauses because the games are on television. Twenty-three of the top 25 shows in the 2011 fall television season were NFL games, a trend that continued this year as nearly 106 million people watched the opening weekend. In sports, there’s the NFL and then somewhere in the distance is every other league.
But how did this happen? How did the NFL come to control the sporting landscape in the United States? It’s a combination of factors, both serendipitous and intentional. The first is the Super Bowl. The league’s championship game is almost always the biggest television event of the year. Between 1964 and 2010, 21 of the top 46 most-watched shows were the Super Bowl. That is, simply put, astonishing. It means, if nothing else, the entire country thinks about the NFL at least once a year. You can say that about no other sport.
That ubiquity, in turn, led to dollars, which is really what matters. In 1961, the league negotiated its first television contract for $4.65 million per season. In 2013, the league and the teams will share $3.1 billion per season. The scary thing is that massive price tag is probably worth the cash for the networks as advertisers eat up spots. Prices for 30 seconds of Super Bowl time rose 59 percent in a decade to $3.5 million last year. All the money flowing into the game helped NFL teams gain huge valuations, which made the already rich owners even richer. Awesome, for them.
But the success of the NFL is about more than money. The game itself is ideally suited to the American audience in the 21st century. Think about it: There are logical breaks during the action that allow us to run, grab a beer (preferably a Coors Light that’s advertised during the commercials), and take a leak. For the most part, the matches happen once a week, unlike baseball, basketball, or hockey, where games arrive during the week with no rhyme or reason. Being a casual supporter of your hometown team is a three and a half hour, once-a-week commitment. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not very much.
But, and this is important, the NFL – more than any other sport – is not about just cheering for your team. While fantasy baseball came first, football is actually the more perfect fantasy sport. It doesn’t require the massive effort and attention required to maintain a baseball team, but it boasts enough stats and categories to keep things interesting. And yes, fantasy football is simple enough that your girlfriend can play, too.
In many ways, the beauty and brilliance of the NFL is that it has a low entry barrier but a nearly infinite ceiling of fandom. You can commit to one game a week or an entire day on Sunday, Thursday and Monday night, and a week of watching ESPN talking heads scream at each other. Fantasy football and root, root, root for the home team are gateway drugs; how deep down the rabbit hole is entirely up to you. And usually, it’s pretty deep, which is exactly how Roger Goodell likes it.
So, can anything stop the unstoppable? Honestly, probably not. The NFL is too big, too strong, too culturally engrained, and it’s getting bigger (and richer) every year. But there are some signs of weakness. One of the most pressing ones is the use of replacement refs. In the USA Today, Michael Hiestand wondered if this year’s awful officials could hurt the ratings, which, in turn, would affect the bottom line. (The replacement refs are already altering the betting lines.) It’s highly unlikely that this will happen, but it does speak to a larger perception that Goodell is acting with wanton disregard for the quality of the league. The commish is above everything. The New Orleans Saints “Bountygate” was another example. Goodell as judge, jury, and executioner is not a good look. But as long as the NFL remains largely the same, it’s not going to matter to the general public. We demand our football.
There’s also the issue of player safety, which is turning some people off from the sport. Patrick Hruby argued this point eloquently at the start of the season. I certainly sympathize, but let’s be frank here: It’s not going to stop me from watching. Until something dramatic happens, I’ll be on the couch on Sunday. And Thursday and Monday and whenever else there’s NFL action on as well. I bet you will be as well. Long live the NFL, not that there’s any other choice.