The NFL Wins War on Popularity: Why the NFL Is Now America's Favorite Sport

Jack KContributor INovember 6, 2010

It’s hard to imagine a world without professional sports. Everything would be incredibly dull. Sports have the unique ability to make people forget about the realities of their sad lives. This is the precise reason why during a recession the three main sports, basketball, baseball and football are at their peak of popularity.

Throughout America’s history, it has been all about baseball. America’s past time has ruled the sporting industry, until a couple decades ago. In 1985, about 24 percent of people who were asked, “Which pro sport is your favorite?” said it was pro football. This narrowly beat out baseball by 1 percent.

When this poll was conducted more recently, (2009) football had extended its lead over baseball in popularity from 1 percent of the population to 19 percent [i]. This leap of popularity for pro football is a result of it being a more exciting game and having a shorter, more unpredictable season. Fans are generally more excited about football then any other sport.  It has become, by far America’s most popular and successful professional sport.

It’s impossible to be disappointed after a Chris Berman football highlight. Not because of his famous “whuop” but more due to the electrifying plays in football. Nearly every snap is worth getting excited over. There could be a big play, a ridiculous juke or even a lights out hits. It’s as if the entire football game is a highlight.

The same cannot be said about baseball or even basketball. Besides the occasional home run or dunk, these sports can be boring and even tedious. This excitement is an important reason why football has become so popular. It has become apparent that people enjoy short but electrifying seasons as opposed to long but relatively boring ones.

Football’s 16-game season is crucial to the success of its business. The one game a week format has made the want for football more prevalent. In business terms it’s supply and demand. Since the sport has less of a supply of football games, the demand for them goes up. Baseball seasons supply an abundance of games, meaning the demand goes way down. Having one game a week builds up anticipation and suspense for six days.

Unlike any other sport the majority of fans make it their obligation to watch every game. This loyalty makes the popularity and success of football go way up. When the calendar finally hits Sunday there is an enormous amount of build up for the game. The invested interest in each and every game comes from the fact that football is unpredictable. No matter how much a team is ahead in the standings or how much they are projected to lose by, either team can win every game.

One reason why the NFL has gained so much popularity is because of the repeated instances of teams coming from obscurity and having a successful year. Take the 2007 New York Giants for example. They were a less than spectacular team that limped into the playoffs. Not even expected to make it past the first game, they shocked the world when they defeated the Goliaths of football, the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Stories like these give every team and their fans hope. This is why people care so much about every game. Baseball, on the other hand, is a lot easier to predict who makes the playoffs. Unlike baseball, another reason why football is so great is that it’s not just big market teams that make the playoffs every year.

The NFL’s salary cap makes it so that every team, no matter where they are from, are put on an equal playing field. The NFL teams from New York or Los Angeles are not necessarily the most victorious every year. The salary cap allows the NFL teams from Pittsburgh, Arizona, and Baltimore to be successful. Now imagine in the MLB the Pirates, the Diamondbacks and the Orioles having a possibility of making a run at the World Series every year. It just does not happen.

Steinbrenner's New York Yankees taught us last decade, last century, that baseball is no different than a hostile take-over. You buy everyone out and celebrate with a corporate golf tournament. Only the Braves, Indians, Dodgers, Mets…are allowed to play [ii].

In the MLB big-market teams take advantage of their wealth and end up controlling the whole industry. Since football does not have this system, it allows their league to be a lot more competitive. So the NFL creates a more enjoyable product because fans know that their team, no matter where they are from, has the opportunity of winning. The fans as a result become a lot more passionate about the sport.

Many people watch football games for the surrounding experience, rather then for the outcome of the game. Football more than any other sport has a unique culture. When you watch a game there are a lot of events that accompany it. Normally it includes a large gathering, socializing and delicious foods.

For any other professional sport each game is not such a big event. Football is distinctive because a person can love the culture without watching or even caring about the outcome of the game. One example of this is when fans spend hours tailgating at a football stadium without having a ticket to the actual game. Fantasy football is another example of people not caring about the outcome of the game.

Fantasy football to many is why they watch and care about the game. Fantasy football is a way of managing a virtual football team in which the outcome is a result of a player’s statistics. This compels people to watch nearly every game in order to check on how their players are performing. The NFL profits greatly on these added viewers. Fantasy football is by no means a small industry. Nineteen million Americans participate in this 800 million dollar business [iii]. Without fantasy football providing an enormous amount of fans, the NFL would not be what it is today.

Pro football has emerged into America’s most watched and most loved sport. People have been making the switch from being an avid baseball fan to a football fan for years now. They have been doing this because of the difference in the excitement of the games. On Sunday fans will get excited for an electrifying play or seeing their NFL or fantasy team succeed. But after the last game on Sunday, the excitement turns to sadness because fans know football will not be back on for another week. No wonder why 65 percent of Americans said Monday was their least favorite day [iv]. 




[i] Harris Interactive poll:

[ii]  Altogether vs. all alone/ Small-market teams thriving in NFL, Gazette, The (Colorado Springs), Jan 19, 2000 by Lee Jenkins

[iii] NFL Football Thriving as NFL Fan Obsession David Sweet,

[iv] The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 2005 By Alec M. Gallup, Frank Newport