In Texas, it is all about Friday night. On Saturday, college rivalries are renewed around grills and tailgates, while Sunday belongs to America’s most popular corporation — the NFL.
Simply put, it is football season.
Football season now runs from late August until February, and is barely only disturbed by the inconvenience of Thanksgiving and Christmas (truth be known, if the Gregorian monks who established the modern calendar were any kind of real Notre Dame fans, they would have figured out some way for Christmas to only fall on Sundays so we would be guaranteed football every year on that day).
Throw in a good Monday night game and the Thursday NFL Network game and all you really have to deal with is a football-free Tuesday and Wednesday (but then again maybe there is a JV game being played somewhere).
Come Sunday, housewives aren’t afraid to paint horseshoes on their faces and spend most of the morning dumping gallons of cocktail wieners in tubs of barbecue sauce. It seems perfectly normal to see plenty of men in blue clown wigs pumping gas just south of Indianapolis, while other generally reasonable people the other six days of the week, try to find ways to blame Tom Brady for the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor and the potato famine.
Professional football is now an event celebrated 20 Sundays a year, but when exactly did this happen? There was a time not too long ago when the many New York newspapers would send 10 or 12 reporters to every baseball game, home and away. It was the sport that kept America glued to its radio and following the batting race was the primary concern in every barber shop on every corner. Loving baseball was “our national pastime,” and most older people will tell you that it was college football, not the pro game, that was the biggest focus on the gridiron through the 1940s and 50s. The NFL was really just a place one went to bide a little time before they started a real career.
So what else helped shake the NFL loose in the late 1950s? Television. It showed the game in living color, up close and personal. It drove personalities to the forefront, which in turn created brands, which in turn created brand loyalty.
The story is not just how did football become our national obsession, it’s the story of how sports, media, corporations and advertising were able to seamlessly work together to take on the country’s least popular activities and create a mega-billion dollar industry in about five decades.
In the 1960s, Americans were able to use television to live vicariously through Unitas, Hornung, Butkus, Sayers and Karras without ever having to lace up a cleat. The more popular the game became in the early 1970s, the better the coverage got, forcing the networks to integrate better technology into every broadcast. As broadcasts got better, so did the broadcasters, creating a culture of the celebrity/entertainer/broadcaster like Howard Cosell. We tuned in not just for the game, but also for what John Madden or Cosell was going to say.
The Super Bowl became a national holiday, and finding additional ways to cover it helped create 24-hour sports news cycles, before we ever bought into the idea of 24-hour news coverage. There are an estimated 75,000 private blogs and Internet resources now covering football on a second-by-second basis.
Football may be the only entity that violates the law of supply and demand. The more we demand, the more they supply, but it never seems to reach the point of diminishing marginal returns where we finally want less.
It’s funny, in spite of the Teflon nature of football fan’s gladiator mentality, the only thing that appears capable of hurting the game – is actually playing it.
As the long-term effect of playing football for an extended period of time becomes more and more evident, the harder it will be to get people to play it. Football’s demise won’t come from the outside with a lack of popularity, it will most likely come from within. As the lawsuits trickle down from retired NFL players, to current players, to ex-college and high school players, all filing class action suits, organizations will not be able to afford to fund teams.
There may be some rouge organizations that will try to keep the game alive, but unless we can find a way to keep people’s brains from moving around when one very large man collides with another very large man at a high rate of speed, the game may be doomed at the very zenith of its popularity.
Can it be saved? Maybe.
In 1905, football was almost banned after 45 deaths occurred in the previous five years due to “unnecessary roughness.” At that point, President Theodore Roosevelt formed a presidential commission to find a way to make the game safer and save it for the next 111 years. Unfortunately, billions of dollars weren’t at stake then — and I don’t think I saw anyone of Roosevelt’s caliber on the ballot this fall.
By Todd Lancaster
Todd Lancaster is a New England Patriots fan … send him hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org