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Why the NFL Is on Top, for Good, in American Sports

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Why the NFL Is on Top, for Good, in American Sports
Al Bello/Getty Images

The NFL is the prince of American sports. Ahem—capital "P," if you please.

Per Harris Interactive, 36 percent of Americans who follow sports name professional football their favorite. Second-most popular? Baseball, at 13 percent. Since last year, those figures are up five percent and down four percent, respectively.

NFL TV ratings are nothing short of astonishing. Per Yahoo!, 23 of the top-25 television shows last fall were NFL games; 37 games drew at least 20 million viewers. Every year, the Super Bowl breaks its own ratings record. Meanwhile, the World Series perennially scrapes the bottom of its all-time ratings barrel.

According to WR Hambrecht & Co., the average NFL franchise is worth more than two average MLB franchises. Is it any wonder? The NFL suffered through a PR nightmare with their extended lockout, and ESPN responded by adding more NFL-specific shows and expanding the ones they've got.

America's appetite for pro football is insatiable and will be for the foreseeable future...but why?

 

The Illusion of Parity

The NFL, by reputation, has the best competitive balance of any professional sports league. The thing is, that reputation was built in the early '90s.

In 1994, the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, who finished the regular season 13-3, were an unstoppable juggernaut. They were the only team with more than 12 wins, and one of only three with more than 10. That's parity.

In 2011, the 49ers, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints all had more than 12 wins—and none of them even won the Super Bowl!

It's not so much that the NFL is balanced top to bottom; it's that player-movement rules, carefully balanced schedules and the sport's inherently high randomness allow for teams to quickly go from the bottom to contention.

Al Bello/Getty Images

The 2002 realignment shrank divisions and allowed eight champions into the playoffs—plus four wild-card squads. This tweak has allowed unimpressive giant-killing (and New York Giants) teams into the postseason (and sometimes the Super Bowl). Except for a very few cellar-dwellers, fans of every team can harbor playoff hopes—and fans of every playoff team can harbor title hopes.

Contrast this with baseball: Per Wikipedia, six MLB teams haven't even made the playoffs in over a decade; only the Bills have suffered so long in the NFL. Twelve MLB teams (almost half the 30-team league!) have a four-plus-year postseason drought; only seven NFL teams have been out of the postseason for so long.

It's hard to stay passionate about a sport when your favorite team begins and ends 162-game season after 162-game season without a prayer of making the playoffs. It's easy when you can go from 0-16 to 10-6 with only two seasons in between.

 

The Generation Gap

Why is this a two-sport discussion? Because MLB is the NFL's closest competitor in passion, attendance and ratings—and the distant No. 3 is college football. Unlike the 1980s, when the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL were covered in seasonal equilibrium as "the four major sports." Football is the undisputed driver of numbers all fall, winter, spring and summer long.

Not too long ago, baseball was America's "National Pastime." In the 1960s and 1970s, that began to change. The popularity of television and football's TV-tailored, high-velocity, stop-and-start nature helped draw America's attention from lazy summer afternoon radio to Monday Night Football.

As the pace of American life has shifted from rural farmhouses and single-income families to harried urban and suburban households, football's once-a-weekend rhythm meshes much better with Americans' availability.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

While Baby Boomers fell in love with '80s Kevin Costner movies romanticizing the sport they grew up with, they raised kids who were too busy to while away hours hitting fungoes or sneak transistor radios under covers and listen to night games over AM airwaves.

In the 1985 version of that same Harris Poll "favorite sport" question, the NFL and MLB ran neck-and-neck (24 percent to 23 percent). The NFL's 12 percent boost in subsequent years has come almost entirely at the minus-10 percent expense of the MLB; that's the generation gap at play.

MLB is doing very well in attendance. Numbers have gone down for three straight seasons, but that's three straight seasons down from an all-time high. More and more people are attending games, while fewer and fewer are are paying attention otherwise.

One possible explanation? As the Baby Boomers turn 60, they and the generation above them have grown children, increased disposable income and decreased work responsibilities; they're much more likely to spend an afternoon at the ballpark.

Their children and grandchildren can consume football analysis in the form of blogs, tweets, and podcasts during the gaps and transitions of their jam-packed schedule, while "waiting all day for Sunday Night."

 

The Nest-Feathering League

As I wrote earlier, the NFL is no longer in the business of running a sports league. It's in the Machiavellian business of maintaining a monopoly.

Time and time again, commissioner Goodell makes decisions or expresses support for issues that aren't in the best interests of the fans, players or even teams. But, he consistently acts in the fashion that will best protect the NFL's interests.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The NFL is cracking down on "excessively" high-velocity hits to prove they're taking the threat of concussions seriously. But they're also pursuing a longer regular season because that will bring in far more TV revenue. Reducing injuries by playing more games is nonsensical—but the point isn't to make sense; it's to make money.

The lockout gave the NFL the revenue structure it needs to "grow the game" (i.e., insulate the owners from financial risk as they build new stadiums, move to different cities, make speculative investments and build interest overseas).

They had to spend months locked in a bitter court battle with their own players—infuriating millions of fans who pay dearly for the right to support their teams—to pull it off, but they did.

Over the 10-year life of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL will build the framework to reach their astronomical goal of $25 billion in revenue by the year 2027. If they're successful, the NFL truly will be sports royalty: self-perpetuating wealth, revenue and passion growing from generation to generation.

Maybe it really is better to be feared than loved.

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