How the NFL Became America's Sport

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterJuly 3, 2013

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 06:  An American Flag is displayed prior to the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game between the Washington Redskins and the Seattle Seahawks at FedExField on January 6, 2013 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

While Major League Baseball once held the title of America's Pastime, the NFL has long since wrestled that title away.

Just this year, Harris Interactive reported that 34 percent of Americans identify professional football as their favorite sport. This compared to only 16 percent for baseball. When one adds in the 11 percent that say college football is their favorite, it's clear that Americans prefer their sports with pig-flavored balls rather than stitched leather.

It isn't just viewership that is on the rise for football. These days, kids are choosing "more exciting" sports over baseball. According to The Wall Street Journal:

From 2000 to 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball fell 24%, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, an industry trade group. Despite growing concerns about the long-term effects of concussions, participation in youth tackle football has soared 21% over the same time span, while ice hockey jumped 38%. The Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, another industry trade group, said baseball participation fell 12.7% for the overall population.

One hundred years ago, Jim Thorpe—fresh off medaling in the 1912 Summer Olympics—became professional football's first superstar. Thorpe's career would last until he was 42 years old, and in 1923 he became a member of the league's first-ever All-Pro team.

That was then. Now, 100 years later, Thorpe and his contemporaries would be amazed at the crowds that pack massive NFL stadiums. They would never believe the weekend marathons of NFL action that start Thursday night and don't end until the fifth game of the football week has been consumed on Monday night.

Again, that's not even factoring in the crazy amounts of college football one can take in throughout the entire week. With a DVR hooked up to the TV, there's little reason football can't be on the menu every single time one turns on the set.

Where would one ever start to explain things like NFL RedZone or fantasy football?

The NFL has a stranglehold on the American sports experience right now, but it wasn't always that way.

The 90s Created a Sports Vacuum for the NFL to Eventually Fill

Growing up in the 90s, it's easy for my generation to remember a time when the NFL wasn't king.

With all due respect to the (many) larger-than-life personalities who have come through the NFL over the years, none captured the collective attention of Americans like Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

I know hardcore football fans will think back to a time much earlier than the 90s when the NFL was their favorite sport. I can, too! However, from a societal perspective, the NFL has turned steady gains into leaps and bounds as of late. The chart above is Super Bowl viewership—when do the most casual of fans tune into the biggest game? The 90s weren't a time when the NFL ruled the roost as much as its biggest fans might think.

Think about it: Where Emmitt Smith was a giant, Bird was a mountain. Where Jerry Rice was the G.O.A.T., Jordan was a god. Once Bird stepped onto an NBA court in 1979, the NBA became the sport in America until Jordan started to decline in the late 90s.

Then, as Jordan faded from public importance, the NBA went on strike.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, the narrative of selfish, money-grabbing NBA players was only amplified by the high-scoring and freestyling play of stars like Allen Iverson and Paul Pierce. Gone were Magic Johnson's Showtime Lakers, Red's Celtics, the Bad Boy Pistons and Jordan's Bulls. Following the strike the NBA's importance in American life faded, and even Jordan's short-lived time on the Wizards couldn't save it.

Of course, the NBA wasn't the only league going on strike. In fact, the NFL was the only league that didn't face a work stoppage in the 90s. MLB had a lockout in 1990 and a strike in 1994-95. The NHL was on strike in 1992 and locked out 1994-95.

At that point, the NFL was the only stable game in town for many sports fans. Even as salaries continued to rise and labor unrest boiled under the surface, the public perception was that the NFL was a true team sport while NBA, MLB and NHL players were overpaid brats.

Yet, as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire chased home run records in 1998, MLB was able to make it very clear that it still had a decent shot at the top of the mountain.

Expansion and Rules Changes Create a More Vibrant League

Between 1995 and 2002, the NFL underwent massive changes both cosmetically and substantially.

First, the Rams moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis and the Raiders moved from Los Angeles to Oakland. Then, two expansion teams—the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars—were created. This shift put two new teams in Southern markets and one back in the Midwest.

In 1996, the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens. The next year, in 1997, the Houston Oilers moved to Nashville to eventually become the Tennessee Titans. Just two years later, the Browns were re-established as an expansion franchise in Cleveland. In 2002, the Houston Texans were added to make up for the loss of the Oilers.

That's another team on the East Coast and an even stronger presence in the South.

By this point in history, the NFL could have settled for a "if you build it they will come" attitude, but the league continued to tinker with the game to provide viewers with an even better experience. (Sorry, purists, but you know it's true.)

There have been rule changes to football since the days of Walter Camp and Pop Warner, but for the purposes of this article, the first major rules change can be seen in 1990 as the NFL revised its playoff format to provide two additional Wild Card teams.

In 1994, the two-point conversion was added. (Side note: How weird is it that 19-year-olds never lived in a world that didn't have two-point conversions?) While the conversion attempt isn't utilized very often, it increased the amount of strategy and made the ends of games that much more tantalizing.

The rest of the 90s and the early 2000s featured rule changes that significantly helped offenses. First, in 1995, a receiver knocked out of bounds could re-establish himself in the field of play. The next year, referees made the five-yard contact rule a point of emphasis and began protecting players from helmet-to-helmet hits. In 1998, the defense was now unable to flinch to draw offensive linemen offsides. In 2001, the referees were again asked to protect passers to protect the owners' investments.

These geographical and rule changes put a higher-scoring game on the television sets of more and more media markets in the United States. Still, it took one more step to put fan's butts in the seats for their modern-day football addictions.

Fantasy Football Creates a Leaguewide Interest for Casual Fans

The first fantasy football league was started in 1963, but it took decades for it to reach the mainstream. More to point, it took the advance of the Internet over the old fax machine method of score-tracking, and the ability to get scores live rather than in the newspaper box score the next morning.

Bleacher Report actually has an interesting connection to this leap in NFL popularity, as CEO Brian Grey became general manager at Yahoo! Sports in 2001. One of his first goals was to raise the profile of their fantasy sports scene. Grey's big idea was to make fantasy football something free to play rather than the paid leagues Yahoo!'s competitors were offering.

It took off like gangbusters.

To this day—even after ESPN, CBS and others were forced into free leagues—Yahoo! remains one of the top fantasy football destinations on the Web.

With the advent of fantasy sports, fans now have a vested interest in teams and players that aren't geographically near them. Two decades ago, a fan in Syracuse, N.Y., didn't need to know that the St. Louis Rams running back ran for two touchdowns. Now, that same fan needs to know up-to-the-second injury information on that running back and demands retribution if the coach limits his carries.

Fantasy sports has emboldened NFL reporters and increased the use of second-screen viewing as fans set up shop not only with their big screens, but also with their tablets and mobile devices. To keep up with the home-viewing experience, in 2011, the league mandated that teams show fantasy statistics from across the league on the video scoreboards.

Now, the NFL has its own channel just for scoring opportunities. Microsoft is rolling out a host of fantasy football friendly features for its new Xbox One console. The way we consume the game is changing, and it's only a matter of time before fantasy football at least influences the decisions made in league offices about the play of the game.

The NFL filled a vacuum created by labor strife and the exit of a few NBA icons. That coincided with a massive expansion and rules change by the NFL to make the game more appealing to average fans across the country. Fantasy football, more than any other development, locked those fans in and gave them a reason to care about every single team across the league.

The NFL is America's sport, and it doesn't look like that is changing anytime soon.

Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.