Why is Football More Popular than Ever?

Tivo and Netflix ought to have been made other entertainment more popular and football less popular as a form of entertainment but instead more people are watching football than ever before. Gabriel Rossman asks why?

We can start with a few basic technological shifts, specifically the DVR and broadband internet. Both technologies have the effect that people are watching fewer commercials. From this we can infer that advertisers will have a pronounced preference for “DVR-proof” advertising.

….In practice getting people to watch spot advertising means programming that has to be watched live and in practice that in turn means sports. Thus it is entirely predictable that advertisers will pay a premium for sports. It is also predictable that the cable industry will pay a premium for sports because must-watch ephemera is a good insurance policy against cord-cutting. Moreover, as a straight-forward Ricardian rent type issue, we would predict that this increased demand would accrue to the owners of factor inputs: athletes, team owners, and (in the short-run) the owners of cable channels with contracts to carry sports content. Indeed this has basically all happened….

Here’s something else that is entirely predictable from these premises: we should have declining viewership for sports….If you’re the marginal viewer who ex ante finds sports and scripted equally compelling, it seems like as sports get more expensive and you keep having to watch ads, whereas scripted gets dirt cheap, ad-free, and generally more convenient, the marginal viewer would give up sports, watch last season’s episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix, be blissfully unaware of major advertising campaigns, and pocket the $50 difference between a basic cable package and a $10 Netflix subscription.

…The weird thing is that this latter prediction didn’t happen. During exactly the same period over which sports got more expensive in absolute terms and there was declining direct cost and hassle for close substitutes, viewership for sports increased. From 2003 to 2013, sports viewership was up 27%. Or rather, baseball isn’t doing so great and basketball is holding its own, but holy moly, people love football. If you look at both the top events and top series on tv, it’s basically football, football, some other crap, and more football…. I just can’t understand how when one thing gets more expensive and something else that’s similar gets a lot cheaper and lower hassle, that you see people flocking to the thing that is absolutely more hassle and relatively more money.

It’s a good question. Demographics don’t appear to explain the change. Football skews young, male and black but none of these are undergoing rapid increase. (It’s the aged that are undergoing high growth rates but it’s baseball that appeals more to the old and that isn’t doing great). Fantasy football is big but is it cause or effect?

One possibility is that precisely because there are so few common events to coordinate on, the ones that do coordinate become more important. Why football and not baseball or basketball? Why not? It’s not hard to spin stories but it may also be that random advantages snowballed.

Other theories?

Comments

I have a very simple and very general theory. Sports are an analog for war. The closer they approximate war, the more popular they will be. Football is more warlike than anything else currently played.

But historically when football wasn't most popular or the decline of boxing?
Equally rugby being a niche sport in Europe compared to "soccer".

I suppose complete sentences are now considered "old-fashioned."

Twitter and Facebook are sending mankind back to the stone age. Soon, we shall all communicate only with grunts.

how does one "like" in gruntspeak?

Come to think of it, there is something Orwellian about it: Duckspeak.

Football became popular in the U.S. as the U.S. became a world military power.

Boxing is individual combat, not war.

But the popular video games are first person shooter, combat, not war

Rugby rules are too complicated for Americans. There are few stoppages in the action. PS: two of my sons played university club rugby. Once they have played, it's in the blood.

Two football advantages: one, many young men played (or wanted to play) high school football. Youth soccer leagues flourish until the boys have the opportunity to play organized football. Two, many men place bets/pools on the games and watch their investment rise or fall.

Gridiron football is too complicated for Europeans. It's why they prefer soccer.

"Rugby rules are too complicated for Americans."

American football is significantly more complex than rugby. Rugby has a few confusing aspects (e.g. rules about the scrum), but football has far more variety in terms of the types of different plays and situations.

"Once they have played, it’s in the blood".

+1. I have seen many ex-football players-turned-ruggers that regret that they didnt play rugby in high school instead of football

Both Rugby Union (not Rugby League) and American Football are far more complex than other types of football. I don't know how you measure the complexity to tell which is more complex. There are significant intricacies in both that are not obvious until you learn them properly. Scrum rules are pretty straightforward actually (although it is difficult to see how players break them when they do, and scrums fall down too much). If you don't know what is going on in rucks, mauls, scrums, and line-outs then you won't notice a lot of the variety. Also a lot of the variety in both sports also happens from game to game rather than within a game, so you can't tell until you watch a couple of seasons how much variety there is.

But chess is war, and I don't see anybody even mentioning the winner of this weekend's Millionaires Open in Las Vegas (GM W. So, a Filipino).

As for random effects snowballing, isn't that the theory of evolution? Something gives football a slight competitive advantage over the other sports, perhaps the warlike gladiator aspect? Then again boxing is not as popular. I think it's the simple linear nature of football, with North, South avenues and limited degrees of freedom that make it appealing. Three yards and a cloud of dust appealed to a lot of fans in Ohio State for years. Stupid loves stupid.

BTW I read somewhere that baseball is an inferior good (econ term), so in theory it should be making a comeback during stagnant econ times.

Only people in the US seem to notice this ;) ... the rest of the world apparently has another opinion

That would explain why football is a popular sport, but it does not explain why football has grown even more popular with the rise of netflix.

Football is hugely popular because America is full of Dirks.

Dirk, you are making the same mistake as Tarrou. That heterosexual men like football explains why football gets high ratings, but it does not explain why those ratings have risen since the rise of Netflix.

One possibility is that scripted shows now feature less masculine heterosexual males so football is picking up the slack. Call this the Big Bang Theory Theory. I think that makes a lot of sense, particularly for comedies. I think that's a big reason why I haven't gotten into a comedy in a long time even though I find them very funny whenever I catch a bit of an episode. But I don't think it's true of the dramatic scripted shows. They typically feature highly masculine male anti-heroes. Sure there are exceptions (House of Cards and Orange is the New Black), but that seems to be the pattern.

I said "anymore", meaning I agree with your Big Bang Theory theory. Seinfeld was the last good network show, good enough to plan your evening around. After that shows became more effiminate and gay to the point that they alienated the "normal guy" demographic.

As for dramatic scripted TV shows, I bet that's mainly a chick thing, because women are more into pop culture for the sake of pop culture. I don't understand why people waste their time watching mediocre scripted drama when there are so many great movies you can get from Netflix.

As an example, Louis CK is a normal guy's normal guy, yet network television won't give him the time of day. The network executives want young, gay acting guys like Mulaney, because that is who they relate to.

The most popular broadcast TV show of the last decade, by far, is NCIS.

NCIS features very masculine male characters, especially the lead.

If the most masculine show is the most popular show, then it goes to show that networks are foolishly making too many effiminate shows.

Spurious correlation. Netflix became popular at the same time every television program absolutely, positively, had to have a homosexual in it.

"The only TV for heterosexual men anymore is football"

Football looks pretty gay to me, what with all the men in tights and shoulder pads and all that, so I'm inclined to think it is TV for homosexuals who do not want to admit they're homosexual.

For that thesis to work, what percentage of Americans would have to be homosexual?

dirk wins the thread. I am an immigrant from Europe and it is still hard for me to understand all the football rules, but I have been watching more and more, as have my three sons. (they understand the rules!) It is something real.

The last sitcom I really watched every episode of was indeed Seinfeld. Since then it has become more and more impossible to watch any. I have truly tried, Girls, and the Americans, and Friends, and Big Bang, and Good Wife, and many others. Over the years series and sitcoms evidently become progressively more anti-male, to the point where they are now truly unwatcheable.

We tend to rent full years of older sitcoms now, such as MASH and Seinfeld, and watch them together as a family, to try to recoup that feeling that my wife and I had as children watching the same shows as our parents.

Just about the only TV show I can stomach is Blue Bloods.

Football is like war? In that it's extremely slow and the referees lawyer over every single play because a safety briefly touched a potential receiver or somebody twitched at the wrong moment? I like football, but it's been getting less and less war-like every decade.

I've wondered whether the head injury issue has brought a sense of danger back to the sport. That might stop you from letting your son play, but encourage you to watch.

The real answer is probably restricted supply of games and the network effects from everybody watching the same games. The addition of a Thursday night game is probably a mistake.

As George Will once quipped, football exemplifies the worst aspects of America: violence punctuated by committee meetings

That said, it's the PERFECT sport for TV and that's why it's so popular. So few games make each one a must watch, it's much better to watch a game on TV than to be in the stadium, etc.

Baseball does worse and worse with their national TV ratings but in all other areas baseball is killing it: LOCAL TV ratings, attendance, revenue, etc.

Give me rules and a score and I'll enjoy myself playing or watching, so maybe I'm not the best judge.

But I agree that football is amazing TV.

Off topic kind of: what do baseball and football have in common?

In both the most exciting play is the diving catch....

If you like football strategy or enjoy the crowd aspect it is a much better game in person.

TV seldom allows you to see all 22 players at once or to focus on a particular match up of your choosing and the crowd aspect of a college football game is simply electric.

Disagree. You see the actions of far more players on TV than in the stands - too many obstacles and bad angle of view. Instant replay and announcing helps understand the action too.

While every player on the team has a job to do, many of them are only involved in deception, and that deception, by definition, is harder to see from ground view. Not only does television clearly show the deception, you can also safely IGNORE the deception because the key players around the ball are clearly visible.

Tactics are far better understood from a bird's eye view which is how they are devised. Mastery of the third dimension is how football becomes great. The forward pass was an enormous leap for football.

You must watch differently than me. I always want to see what coverage the defense is in pre snap. Very hard to see that on tv relative to at the game. Also hard to see open receivers that the QB misses other than replay. And if you want to watch an individual battle such as CB vs WR or DE vs OT you only get that at the game or when the TV folks decide to show it.

From my seats about 30 rows up in the corner I get better views of the total action about 75% of the time. When they cross the 30 on the opposite end it gets worse but they have a jumbotron replaying every play anyway.

THIS is why football is better than every other sport:

Anatomy of a Play

In any other sport, a similar description would be boring or ridiculous.

I dont disagree with you about the defense, but the D sets up according to what it thinks the O is going to do.

You left off radio. It probably isn't significant enough to undermine you point, but fans definitely listen to games called on the radio.

Oddly, yes. That is exactly what war is like. Nothing happening most of the time, then bursts of action, followed by the descent of lawyers and officers to nitpick over the recent action and assign blame and penalties.

Okay, that was funny.

If football is popular because it approximates war, one reason for the increasing popularity of football could be that war is becoming more popular in the U.S. When war was controversial, a significant part of the population didn't share the team spirit - anti-war hippies were not football fans. But now that we have a Nobel Peace Prize winning, liberal Commander-in-Chief leading a war on terrorism started by a Republican, war is far more popular, and everyone can join the fun.

Hunter Thompson was about the biggest football fan imaginable. Also, there's war (bombing ISIS) and there's WAR (Vietnam)

Right, but Thompson was not an ordinary war protester and he was not a hippie - he wrote a fascinating essay about them: http://distrito47.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/the-hippies-by-hunter-s-thompson/

"WAR" might discourage things like American football - who wants to be reminded of something terrible? But "war" might boost football ratings. Americans were split on whether Vietnam was WAR or war, but nearly everyone seems to agree that ISIS is war.

Note it doesn't exemplify modern total war, rather war of the gentleman and of the aristocrat. The kind of war with structure and civility slowly lost to the industrial age. Coaches should start wearing powdered wigs IMO.

Modern warfare is highly structured by those who are good at it. Don't confuse relative mobility with lack of order.

If anything, modern warfare has become far too civilized. The ability to use less than devastating force with precision has become a requirement to do so.

Yes, this is correct. Football is the sublimation of war. "It is a good thing war is horrible, lest we grow to fond of it." Gen. Sherman. Football is war, minus the horrible parts.

What about soccer and its popularity in Europe and Latin America? Why should football be getting even more popular in te USA instead of being as popular as it always was?

I think you have something with the war-like mentality of football but as other commentors have stated, MMA and boxing are just as war-like, if not more (ratings for MMA have increased dramatically however).

I think it has to do with the fact football has become much more competitive in recent years, more than probably any other game. Dynasty's are named after two consecutive championship wins and every year there are about 5-6 teams in the mix. Baseball and basketball really comes down to 1-2 teams dominating and everyone else basically having no chance. As well, in a 1 game series, anyone can win.

Salary caps, free agency, rules changes and the small number of games has made football a far more entertaining sport for the average spectator. Lose 10 games in a row in baseball or 5 in basketball and its shrugged off as a bit of a slump. Loss 5 football games in a row and the coache's head is on the chopping block, as is the team president and GM. As well, its the ultimate team game in a country where team play is becoming more and more important. Football is just a more exciting sport.

Baseball *local* broadcasts are still doing very well (and huge TV contracts), even increasing. People just have a lot less interest in following it when their team isn't playing. Similar things are true for many sports, but not pro football. (College football isn't seeing the advantages of pro football.)

Football skews young, male and black but none of these are undergoing rapid increase. (It’s the aged that are undergoing high growth rates but it’s baseball that appeals more to the old and that isn’t doing great).

Surely the newly aged are those that used to be young and football lovers? I'm not sure that the theory that people suddenly change sports preferences as they age make sense, instead of different cohorts marching through time.

One case where demographics is significant is in soccer, where a very large proportion of MLS fandom is of Hispanic background, as seen here.

Basketball local broadcasts are also doing well.

Yes. And that's the difference between all the other sports and football. Football is the only one that a ton of people watch the national game even if their local team or favorite player isn't involved-- the ratings for the NBC Sunday Night Football pre-game show beat everything on TV that isn't Sunday Night Football itself.

+1, you beat me to it.

Yep. Even if someone is a reasonably interested baseball fan, they are much less likely to closely watch a national broadcast if it doesn't involve "their" team. Sure you're probably following the World Series, but are you actually going to watch all 4-7 games of it? Maybe you'll watch one all the way through, and half of another, or whatever. Only a relatively small portion of "neutral" fans really do watch the whole thing, compared to football. You can make arguments about the pace of the game (and I'm all for picking up the pace of MLB), fantasy football leagues, and whatnot, though I still think a huge part of it is just number of games -- with so many fewer games, both in the regular season and the playoffs, each game in the NFL is much more "important", and it's much easier to watch each one. The World Series again has up to 7 games which necessarily include weeknights, they probably start at or after 8pm because Fox, etc etc. Easy to miss some even if you are a fan. Whereas you kind of have to go out of your way to miss the Super Bowl.

Woody Allen once explained that sports were superior to fiction because nobody knew the outcome ahead of time. In one of his movies, he always knows the outcome, even if the viewers don't.

Then there's the issue that fiction has become more and more feminine. As a result, young men are turning to sports, video games and even porn for general entertainment.

Finally, why football. Here's my theory: fantasy sports. Football is the second best gambling sport after golf. That makes it the best sport for fantasy players, which is a form of gambling.

As Gabriel Rossman notes, fantasy sports is not a good enough explanation, because the increase in football ratings (including for big, already watched events like the Super Bowl) indicates that football is pulling in more casual fans and unique audience members as well; they cannot be explained by the small slice of people doing fantasy sports watching every game instead of just the one each week involving their team.

As well, ratings for golf, your "better gambling sport" are declining anyway, and fantasy baseball and basketball are better sports for truly hardcore fantasy players. Fantasy football is simple by comparison, with much less strategy. Fantasy baseball and basketball can be configured in leagues with the same simplicity as fantasy football must have, or can be made extremely more involved and complicated.

Video games are, like scripted entertainment, also becoming cheaper. The same question of why would young men flock to ever more expensive football when League of Legends is so much cheaper applies as the comparison to scripted fiction.

But as you point, fantasy football is more casual than other sports, so you can have more casual players. That would explain some of the increase. The number of core viewers grows, as a result. The gambling aspect helps in other ways, too, and can be summed up in one word: squares. You don't have to know anything about the game or the teams to care. Gambling/fantasy explains some of the popularity, as seen in the growing popularity of the NCAA tournament.

Also, you have to take the Super Bowl out of the equation. It's growing popularity is more comparable to the growth in popularity of Halloween.

Correct. Those discounting the influence of fantasy leagues have it backwards -- including the addendum on the original post. The marginal fan -- the female in the office league -- now has to pay attention more to compete.

The marginal fan doesn't have to play fantasy football. You could come up with an equally good explanation of why the office forces people to play golf together, but golf and golf ratings are declining.

'equally good' is hardly the adverb I would use. Unlike the golf example, Fantasy Football influences ones behavior on Sunday to pay attention to your team's players and your competitor's. In addition more attention need to be paid during the week.

Furthermore, 'watching golf' is not a function of 'playing golf' whereas with FF, one truly has to pay attention during the season to achieve any success.

Said another way, the FF player now has 'stake' in the game; a vicariousness, if you will, that the golf analogy does not contain.

Please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that FF is the only or even the predominate reason football viewership has increased, but I am saying it should factor into the equation.

I think it goes beyond fantasy football. Over the past 5-10 years I've been invited to more football related pools than I can count.

For example, there are weekly pick'em pools and elimination pools. I have participated in one the past few years where the top prize is $250k. More than 2500 entries are made. It certainly can't be the only one of its size and I expect there are larger ones.

There is a lot to be said for this -- fantasy football and gambling are more for loyalists, but the rising profile of the loyalists makes it socially harder for casual and fringe followers to ignore.

I believe that the network effect of these loyalists coming together, connected by fantasy and reaching out to others via league invites and gambling pool invites, is what has catapulted football to the top of the pile in the US. Fanatic influencers used social invites to build critical mass within our culture. Now, what is everyone talking about before and after the weekend? If everyone is talking about it, people have to know enough to join the conversation and that drives interest and more network effect.

Technological improvement. Football in high-definition is an amazingly good viewing experience.

Indeed - and the game itself is well suited for tv.

Baseball is for the radio, hockey is best live and basketball is for the last 5 minutes.

Three out of four ain't bad. The last five minutes of a basketball game is the worst five minutes in sports.

"The last five minutes of a basketball game is the worst 1 hour in sports."

Fixed it for you.

Baseball is best live as well. Sure, in general baseball play-by-play radio commentators are superior to TV commentators but that does not mean it is close to a better platform than TV or live in-person.

Only with really expensive seats. The interesting part of baseball is the pitcher-batter interaction, and you need to be pretty close to see it. The rest could be replaced with a look-up table without much loss of information.

All depends on how you define it, I suppose.

I enjoy my bleacher seats in the sun at Target Field, talking baseball geek stuff with my brother and enjoying a beer while kinda, sorta being able to tell what pitch was thrown. Old school. Different experience than a more visceral one like college football or European soccer. Also different than a corporate, packaged, made-for-TV experience like football or NBA.

Yes. Other examples of technological improvement include the unbelievable physical skills of the athletes and the increasingly sophisticated strategic "arms race". Nothing is more complicated in the modern NFL than a blocking scheme.

A related point. The NFL is where The Best Athletes in The World are. The biggest, fastest, strongest, toughest, most dedicated badasses. It's the Physics of sports.

Two 300 lbs men push two other 300 lbs men to create a 6" hole through which a 225 lbs man will run at 25 mph.

Yes, football is a game of giants doing extraordinary things minute by minute.

The complexity of the Xs and Os is amazing - much less the science of play calling and sequences.

+1

Much as I dislike the constant play stoppages in football, they do allow complex plays to be set up. Only hockey comes close in complexity as a vaguely mainstream sport. Baseball is dirt simple during the game - shift or not. Basketball is giant slow people on a tiny court so there's no real room for strategy - it's a few picks and athleticism. Soccer is more complicated than people give it credit for.

Basketball is more complicated than you give it credit for, especially at the college level.

Clearly it's _more_complicated at the college level. Smaller, less athletic guys => more room for maneuver and for strategy to play out.

It's still the simplest of the team sports.

"It’s still the simplest of the team sports."

Irk. Arguably baseball is simpler. It depends on what you count. Pitcher-batter interactions are one of the most interesting things in sports. Whether the short stop takes a step to his left before the pitch is not that interesting.

The larger number of players is also a factor - especially since they have distinct individual and group roles.

Once you begin to under schemes, pass progressions, defensive play calling, etc, the game takes on a whole new look.

NFL radio on Sirius has a couple excellent technical analysts for those interested in such.

Yeah, this is why I love it. There is a combination of the most amazing athletes in my opinion (The Refrigerator Perry could dunk a basketball at 6'1" 300+ lbs!) and the most complex strategic interaction of any sport again IMO.

Now that does not explain why it has become more popular. One thing is I sense that the games have become more competitive. In the NFL salary caps and the like have made it that way. In college strategic innovations have made the game much more offensive and prone to upsets.

Exclusivity. I can tell you that, personally, I plan my life around football. I don't go hiking on a football Sunday. Plus, we're watching these games on a total of four channels. Baseball? Basketball? When's the game? I work that day. What channel is it on? Oh, I don't get that channel.

Is the forced movement of the Thursday Night Football games to CBS from NFL Network some evidence for your "number of channels" theory?

YES, yes, a thousand times. This is what makes football different, special and sticky. Not only is it "appointment viewing" (DVR-proof), but it literally owns 6 hours of our culture on Sunday afternoon. Sunday IS football day, and to a lesser extent college football is Saturday. It's perfectly calibrated to the leisure schedule of most Americans. So even if your team isn't playing, there are other games to choose from. This also contributes to its relevance as a rare cultural centerpiece - it's simply easier to follow, enabling more people to feel like members if the ingroup. Ironically, the NFL, in its quest to extend its reach, is putting this scarcity at risk by diluting the brand by having games on Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday night, with likely more to come.

"I can tell you that, personally, I plan my life around football."

Having grown up with parents like this, I find this kind of sad.

Great point.

If you look at Europe, where their love of soccer is like ours of American football times infinity, exclusivity is the appeal. Things have changed a bit, much like NFL has changed by adding Thursday games, but traditionally you're talking about Saturday afternoon matches. Maybe a special feature match on a Sunday. European competitions on a set day during the week, but not every week throughout the season.

Becomes appointment viewing. Becomes tradition. Becomes something you start to schedule around and gives a narrative arc to a week, especially important in our digitally-driven world.

And not serving too much (a la baseball or basketball) keeps the appetite whetted for more.

Here's a very wild guess: As the cost of broadcast rights and advertising during the game goes up, the benefit of advertising the fact that you're showing the game also goes up. As a result, the broadcasters have a greater incentive to advertise the game and hype it as a massive happening.

Better looking cheerleaders would be my guess.

Because in sports it is almost impossible to avoid the spoiler. DVR, TIVOs and illegal downloads have caused that one can choose when wants to see something, but sports is the only product that you will see constantly its end on the media. This has caused more urgency and momentum to the sports experience if someone wants to live it, and people accepts better the worst aspects.

There are only 16 regular season games so each one is an event with much more meaning.

Yep

Plus, there's not a game on every single night like there is with the other sports.

IMO, the NFL should actually get rid of the Thursday night games - too much dilution

There are a total of 256 NFL regular season games, versus 2430 in MLB and 1230 in the NBA and NHL. Add to that the one-and-your-done playoff format and any particular NFL game is vastly more important than any particular game in the other major leagues.

Yet this still doesn't explain the 2003-13 rise.

I think it does in coordination with the rise of netflix and the corresponding decline of shared cultural experiences.

You've got it Justin. The PVR and netflix means we aren't as coordinated on when we watch TV shows. People need something to small talk about and if you aren't all watching the latest episode of Seinfeld on the same night you cant talk about it the next day. Football has become the replacement for that social aspect of TV. And as it becomes the increasing topic of water cooler talk more people want to watch so they can talk about it as well. Football beats the other sports because of its schedule and the snow ball effect of being the biggest means you get bigger.

Culture explains this. Boring but true. Trying to explain a phenomenon through economic theory is like peering through a keyhole (and luckily economics is a broad enough discipline so that different mechanisms predict opposite effects that chained together can 'explain' most things that have already happened, while getting the future right about as often as a stopped clock). Culture is walking through through the door.

So are you going to explain how a cultural shift has caused increased football viewership, or is this the full extent of your 'cultural approach'?

I don't have any way of explaining the shift and I know it. Economists don't have any way of explaining the shift and don't know it. That is why the cultural approach is better.

Football is a social experience, the way baseball was a hundred years ago. Nobody watches football alone. Nobody plays fantasy football with people they don't know.

Also, football is awesome. Economists should understand this better than anyone. It's a game of contrasts, rewarding talent and strength on the one hand, but also preparation and strategic resource optimization. It features strong constraints that reward innovation. See http://smartfootball.com

"Nobody watches football alone."

If the man is the only male in the house, they sure do.

If you have the time to devote the whole afternoon/night to the game, you might go to a bar or a friend's house. You might just watch it at home.

Thanks to fantasy football my wife LOVES football sunday. She gets really mad when she loses to another woman. If it weren't for fantasy I'd watch the homer team and then take a nap.

I would say the under-supply of games has a lot to do with the spread of fantasy football. When each match is so critical to a teams' success, it really inspires an appetite for more; fantasy football is an innovation that satisfies that and gives the sport an additional dimension of appeal. In my own life, I've been rather surprised by the number of nerdy types turning to football for this reason.

I've also noticed a positive feedback loop with women being drawn to the sport. It's become a real topic for inter-sex small talk; motivating both sexes to be knowledgeable. This is really just an instance of coordination though; I assume the under supply of games invites more speculation and theorizing; any baseball game can be too easily written off as a fluke...

I find women talking about team sports fairly annoying. Football is an excuse for male bonding. But I am of an older generation, maybe 20 somethings think inter-sex small talk about sports is fun.

This is the answer. There are games in baseball and basketball that just don't matter. Sometimes even LeBron comes out flat. Who wants to watch that?

But unlike football, you can throw away a few games in baseball and basketball.

So football games just matter more.

And the season is blissfully short compared to the marathons that are the other sports. That adds to the event like quality of each and every game.

Strangely, college football is going away from the whole 'every game is huge' thing. Now, we'll only get to argue about which 9-2 team is fourth best.

See how long it lasts. I think there will be a trickle down effect against football. When they show crowd shots at pro football games don't many people have this thought; My God, I don't want to associate with or be identified with these people.

I live in the Philly area and when I see a middle aged or older person wearing Eagles regalia it turns my stomach. For God's sake people, grow up.

Also, pro football more and more is becoming show business as much as sports. Tiresome as hell.

I'm sure your cultural interests aren't marginal at all. Nothing worse than sci fi fans excuse me "hard" sci fi fans talking about how much they hate football. Unless you attend the opera and ballet regularly your are every bit as much the middle brow masses you despise. Watching Breaking Bad doesn't make you cultured.

Just a suggestion which I am sure you will disregard , but never the less , as a long time addict of MR and having seen your name only in the past few months.......

Most commenters here are civil , but I have noted that your comments whether its about the Indian crap shoot or anything else , has a little bit of vitriol all the time.

Why not try to follow the MR commenter norm and there may be a little more sunshine.....

@Anon, fu azz whole anonymous coward. :-)

To be fair, Philly sports fans would probably make anyone's stomach turn.

No - I don't look down my nose at my peers attending football games, much less when they're dressed in team colors.

Why should I?

Just b/c I may or may not like something doesn't mean those who disagree with my viewpoint are juvenile. That sort of attitude IS precisely one which needs to "grow up".

"Just b/c I may or may not like something doesn’t mean those who disagree with my viewpoint are juvenile. That sort of attitude IS precisely one which needs to “grow up”. "

I'll second this. That whole looking down on people who are different is just bigotry. If it's not your thing, that's fine, but there's no reason to publically dis those people.

Agreed. I never watch football anymore, it's so annoying how everyone is obsessed with it and every sportscenter is filled with nfl previews and nfl human interest stories and on and on. Who gives a shit? I can watch a game, but planning your life around nfl sunday and then talking about it constantly the rest of the week is pathetic.

Did you have your chardonnay pinkie finger raised when you typed this?

Isn't it ironic that when you see a grown man walking down the street wearing a football shirt with the name "Vick" and the number "8" on the back, that man could be almost anyone on earth but a man named Michael Vick.

The rampant football cosplayers don't turn me off football any more than the sci-fi or anime cosplayers turn me off those. I do find it strange when one group of cosplayers criticize the other.

If you read Deadspin's Why Your Team Sucks, you'll notice that about 70% of fans' complaints about their own team are about how fat, stupid, drunk, loud, belligerent and bandwagoning the fans of the team are.

Scarcity in the number of games, relative to other sports. It's harder to follow the storyline in detail across 150+ individual baseball games in a season, whereas it's easier to track the ins-and-outs of 16 games in a regular football season. Per the comment on fantasy football v. fantasy baseball, etc. - it's not a simpler sport to follow, but it is a simpler season to follow.

Another thought - football has been less obviously effected by data-driven strategy than other sports. Baseball has especially become more boring as a result. I joke that baseball would be more interesting if they allowed PDs and banned stats.

The rise of data is why I am much more into baseball than ever before

+1

Finally, someone is willing to actually think about a sport. I wish there were data-oriented alternative broadcasts. Baseball is not my favorite sport, but the recent trend of people actually taking it seriously has greatly improved the experience for me.

Amazing that people who read econ blogs prefer more stats in baseball.

What do you mean?

People have been taking baseball seriously for quite a long time.

Your response makes Mr. Craig's point very well.

Can we drop the cryptic responses? What's his point? That one would expect people around here to prefer a more thoughtful approach? He seemed to be making a negative comment, but perhaps I misread it.

You mean people in the past were serious in the sense of being emotional about the game? Sure, I don't dispute that. It's a wonderful game. People are emotional about wine, but it turns out wine is mostly BS. People are emotional about baseball, and it turns out baseball is much deeper than it looks.

Not negative, just that readers of this blog (myself included) are more inclined to enjoy this kind of analysis than the general public. What the general public sees is that data-driven baseball has become much more boring as teams no longer try to put the ball in play, for example, because the numbers don't support doing so.

But to Bill's point, baseball always was a numbers game, in part because the main way people experienced it was in print.

Thank you Ted, I'm sorry if my reaction was impolite.

Yes, I'm a nerd too. Running the numbers and thinking hard is appealing to me.

1. Football is simply better spectacle than the other major sports, and perfectly calibrated for televised group viewing - plenty of down time to socialize, fairly easy for experienced viewers to know when to redirect their attention to the screen (unlike soccer which can go from absolutely nothing happening to an amazing goal in the space of 3 seconds - soccer rewards attentive viewing, football is a better casual experience).

2. As others have noted, the relative scarcity of football games and the regular schedule (relative to other sports) make the viewing experience more valuable (and the NFL is diluting this at their peril).

3. While football has the spectacle of a team sport, counterintuitively it is also the team sport with the most focus on individual achievement, at least for casual viewers. This is because the quarterback position dominates the game in a way that doesn't exist in other sports. Sure, everyone knows who Messi, Lebron or even Ovechnik are, but when you watch Barcelona play Messi is not continuosly at the center of the action the way Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Russel Wilson are in football. I think this makes it easier for talking heads to make compelling (even if completely bullshit) story lines that encourage viewers to watch the whole season, and follow teams that aren't their home team. The Coach also plays an outsized role in football compared to managers/trainers in other sports, or at least that is the narrative that is sold to us and we willingly buy into. Football taps into our willingness to believe in the "Great Man in History" idea, other major sports - like soccer, hockey or baseball - are more obviously true team sports where one great player can't dominate, and a basketball game is the other extreme - too easily dominated by a few great players, resulting in less drama.

4. I don't understand Rossman's argument that football is relatively "more hassle". Most people still get basic cable packages anyway, football or no football, unlike most other sports, Americans are still mostly conditioned to watch ads, and football is also readily available in public venues like sports bars, hotel televisions, etc. There is also a significant commitment of time and mental energy to watching a lot of scripted television these days - you may be signing up for 60-100 episodes. You can dip in and out of football over the course of the season.

You don't even need cable to watch most football games. It's the only pro sport where all you need to watch your home team is a pair of rabbit ears, especially now that the blackout rule is being lifted.

This.

I was checking to make sure someone had made point #1 before posting. I have read that football was the ideal sport for TV, since it had many, many breaks for advertising. One reason I can't stand it is that it doesn't reward a focused viewer. (I prefer hockey for its intensity and continuous stream of entertainment. It's hard to carry on a conversation while watching hockey though.)

Football has constant stoppages in play and thus many opportunities for social interaction. Even the sound coming from the TV changes right as something "important" happens (right at the snap). Conversation stops, everyone turns to the TV and gets their 10-second dopamine hit. Then they go back to talking, eating nachos, what-have-you. If you went to get another beer and missed a big play, relax, they are replayed so many times you can't really miss anything.

My biggest concern about football is the effect on youth. Making concussions the only "cool sport" in middle school and high school can't possibly be good for us as a nation. It will also exclude all women. (Hint: Women's hockey is just as good to watch as men's. Especially top college and Olympic.)

Not only concussions, I would say widespread doping use is an issue...

Doping has been widespread in football since the 70s and nobody seemed to care.

Football has constant stoppages in play and thus many opportunities for social interaction.

Seems like this applies as much to baseball; indeed, that's a large part of the appeal of going to a baseball game in person for many people. I have a hard time seeing this as a reason that makes football special.

The difference is that there is a much wider variation in the action when the action happens during football. A 2 yard run and a pop fly are somewhat similar outcomes (minor failure for the offense). But everyone who has watched more than a game or two of baseball knows the outcome from shortly after the ball leaves the bat, while what was a 2 yard stop has a reasonably decent chance of becoming much more. For a famous example:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0URyxkeSZM

When was the last time a pop fly turned out with an inside the park home run?

Heh. I sometimes joke that baseball would be better if it were more like golf, with hills and moguls and sandtraps in the field and every park different in a non-trivial way. The error rate is way too low for fielding to be interesting.

Good insight.

#3 is off base I think. The quarterback position is in fact the most badass position in the most badass sport. The combination of skills required is mind-boggling.

BUT, the NFL is NOT about marketing individuals in the way the NBA relentlessly does, having perverted and tailored its game down to a series of one-on-one match-ups. Baseball is literally a series of one-on-one match-ups.

Football is the consummate team game and closest to a military mentality (unlike some, though, I don't think this accounts for its popularity either.) Peyton Manning can't do shit unless the guys in front of him give him time.

Rugby, soccer and hockey are more consumate team sports than football. The players are far more interchangeable. We Americans like the team mentality, but we also don't like seeing individuals reduced to part of a faceless mass (which is what rugby looks like to me). Football's hyperspecialization preserves some individuality. Even a casual viewer can see who the QB is on every play, and quickly distinguish a running back from an offensive lineman or a cornerback from a nose tackle. When Fox advertises "Tony Romo vs. Colink Kaepernick on Sunday Night football!", when you turn on the game most of the action will go through Romo or Kaepernick (depending which team has the ball) and you will hear their names constantly, and see their stats posted every 15 minutes. If you turn on Real vs. Barca to watch Ronaldo vs. Messi there could be long stretches of the game where neither player, despite being among the best in the history of the game, will seem to do much at all (to the casual viewer). The fact that the success of a QB is dependent on his line, the coaches' game plan and how well his own defense plays is very relevant to actually playing or coaching football (or betting), but the "entertainment factor" of NFL as TV product relies on the casual viewer forgetting those facts and focusing on QBs.

To me, football is the best of both worlds. The QB needs his team to perform well, but the difference between the best starting QB in the game and the worst starting QB is probably on the order of 10 points (that's how much the Green Bay line moved for their next game last year when Rodgers was more or less unexpectedly rule out for several weeks). And this probably translates to 5 or 6 games over the course of a season. That is a huge advantage, comparable or even more to having Lebron on your basketball team despite the fact that there are 22 starters on a football team compared to 5 in basketball. And yet football is a better team sport than baseball, for example, because it requires coordination between the players to a much greater degree.

Kind of related to #3:

I felt that actually one of the APPEALS of college football was its subjective ranking system. What a perfect way to create controversy and conversation! Now that we have play offs, there won't be as much fun bitching about the rankings during the off season.

I agree with this. They call it the "mythical national champion," which I agree with. But myth is meant as an insult - myth means it's not real, because it's not objective. But myth can also mean Achilles v. Hector.

Two reasons:

1) Football with limited games once week goes against all other ease of use trends. Also competitor prices for other sports and entertainment is not much higher and mostly hidden on one cable bill.

2) Football is by far the best sport on TV watching experience. The popularity of football increases as the growth of TV over the decades.

3) Football has replaced boxing as the 'gladiator' sport. As boxing popularity drops (over the last 40 years a much) football becomes more popular.

CR

"Football is by far the best sport on TV watching experience." Only people in the US seem to notice this … the rest of the world apparently has another opinion ;)

Possibly they have inferior TVs and TV rooms?

Inferior culture is my guess.

If other countries could even come close to producing the genetic stock to creative massive super athletes like the american south can, their versions of american football might be more interesting to watch. Even with a billion people each, could India or China produce enough NFL caliber players to make a 10 team league?

Watching soccer is like watching paint dry.

If you observe people "watching" a soccer game, they aren't watching most of the time.

I can't help myself. I always vow I will not respond to anti-soccer individuals but here it goes again. I used to watch the NFL all the time. Then I discovered European soccer. Now I spend my limited sports time watching that and watch maybe one NFL game a season. Skipping 30 seconds forward after each play to make the game watchable in a reasonable amount of time. Here is why European soccer is the best sports experience:

1. Continuous action. Not action like hockey, granted, but no commercials to kill the enjoyable flow of the game either. Football has an incredible lack of actual game time.
2. Few goals. This is a plus, not a minus, for the same reason everyone says 16 games makes the NFL special. Goals mean something.
3. Relegation - The bottom of the league has a real reason to play the whole season. If a team is 3-9 in football, what do they have to play for? Unless they are in this year's NFC South ;)
4. In season tournaments - Keeps things fresh because the luck of a tournament win might take the sting out of a mediocre side
5. 38 matches - The season is long but still only 38 matches. The 16 games in the NFL leads to large luck factors. The interminable 162 game baseball season is overkill. 38 games and you get a long but satisfying journey, where the best team almost always wins.
6. Different styles - Size is not as important as in basketball or football. Gifted athletes who are 66 inches tall and 150 pounds are still able to compete at the highest level.

There are more reasons but that is enough. I've noticed that more and more people the last six years have learned that soccer is a great sport and it is OK to enjoy it, even as an American.

It's fantasy football driving it.

Is live sports really DVR-proof? Watching on tape delay is the only way I watch live sports. It's not that hard to avoid spoilers for an hour or so while your game spools up. Then you can fast forward through the commercials. A 3 hour game turns into a 2 hour game. Huge win for little hassle, I don't understand why more people don't do it.

As for why football, as others have mentioned, it's the limited schedule. I used to follow hockey, but since you end up missing most games anyways, it's really easy to justify missing the game that's on tonight.

+1

I DVR live sports and start watching half an hour late. Particularly with football, which is glacially slow, skipping ads and halftime is a big win.

I completely agree. Even better, if CBS and FOX are both showing in your market on a given timeslot: record both games, pause one and watch the other during the commercials and halftime. Between halftime and the commercials you'll be able to watch the finish of both games live or close to it. Only annoying thing is having to ignore the other game on the score chyron (fortunately, they typically don't show highlights from the other network).

Come to think of it I wonder how such behavior would show up in the ratings. If you watch two shows live at once do they both count or neither?

Does anyone know a website that shows the forward treasury curve? I can't find the 5y5y anywhere online. I know it's very easy to get on a bloomberg, but I don't have access at the moment. Thanks

Don't know what Michael Foody had in mind when he urged us to look to culture, but that's what I'd do. And Vanya's #3 is on the money. Think about the three games in terms of their style and pace and then ask why football seems more culturally salient at the moment. This isn't easy to do, but it's what I'd do if I had more time and knew more about all three games.

That's one thing. I'd also look at barriers to entry, not in economic terms, but in perceptual-cognitive terms.

One cultural style, here's a passage from a blog post where I was making a complex analogy between jazz and classical music on the one hand, and basketball and football on the other:

Football involves highly specialized players organized into elaborately structured units, enacting preplanned plays, and directed by a quarterback representing the coach/composer. Each team has eleven players on the field at a time, with the players being trained for very specialized roles. There is an offensive squad and a defensive squad—not to mention special-purpose units for executing and returning kicks. Each of these squads is, in turn, divided into a line and a backfield, with further specialization in each of these divisions. The offensive team is headed by the quarterback while the defense is similarly directed by one of the backfield players. The flow of the game is divided into four quarters each of which is punctuated by the individual plays of the game. The plays are divided into sets of four, called "downs", with the players conferring between plays to decide what to do on the next play, or, at least, to confirm instructions sent in by the coach.

Basketball uses a smaller number of players, five, whose roles are less rigorously specialized. There is no distinction between offensive and defensive squads. And, while there are differentiated roles—a center, two guards and two forwards—this differentiation is not nearly so extensive as that in football. For example, on the offensive squad in football, there is a dramatic distinction between the interior line, whose players do not routinely handle the ball, and the backfield, whose players are supposed to handle the ball. No such distinction exists in basketball; all players are expected to handle the ball and to score. Beyond this, basketball involves a free flowing style of play which is quite different from discrete plays of football.

It makes sense to think of a football game as being composed while a basketball game is improvised. In both cases, the coaches ultimately decide how the came is to be played. But the roles of basketball players are, essentially, more fluid and various than those of football players, giving the individual players considerably more autonomy on the playing field. A football coach can easily intervene after each play, and does so routinely after each set of downs. Basketball coaches cannot, and do not, intervene so directly and so often. Consequently, the basketball team exercises a higher level of decision-making than the football team ordinarily does. African-Americans dominate basketball and, while they are prominent in football, they have been kept from the key role of quarterback, the director of the coach's composition. Football is still largely a European-American sport, reflecting European-American cultural patterns.

Now, what does baseball look like in those terms?

Now, and this follows from style and pace, which game is easiest for a novice to follow? Where the perceptual and cognitive barriers to entry the lowest?

Both football and basketball are broken into discrete segments and that alone makes them easier to follow than basketball, which tends toward continuous flow. Baseball is even easier to follow than football as the action tends to focus on only one or two players at a time, and that focus is physically isolated. But, as others have noted, it's slower paced and so tends toward boredom.

So, we balance perceptual-cognitive barrier to entry against excitment and football comes out a winner.

The difference is like comparing an orchestra with duelling banjos. Both are entertaining, but they are hardly at the same level of sophistication.

But surely the depends on what the orchestra the banjo players are playing. Orchestras don't all playing sophisticated repertoire and not all banjo players are backwoods bumpkins.

Simple answer, Football has worked towards delivering a superior product and have succeeded. You can replace 'football' with, say, 'Ford autos' and the answer would be easy.:

X and Y ought to have been made other automobiles more popular and Fords less popular as a form of transportation but instead more people are buying Fords than ever before.

Football on television, and that's the only football that really matters, is the equivalent of Victorian era wallpaper, an electronic, moving form of interior decoration. When football married television in the late 50s the league had just a few teams and players, many of whom were well known to anyone with even a casual interest in the game. Now there are many teams and players, no one except the obsessed can keep track of all the offensive lineman that toil in anonymity. When a non-fan watches these strangers, clad in identical uniforms that require names and numbers not just to identify them but to separate them as well, it's very much like an extended observation of a tank full of tropical fish and about as meaningful.

In reality, the NFL is the extension of Puritan culture to secular sport. Playing football isn't fun, the players are practically forced to show up to training camp. The Puritan characteristics of self-sacrifice, diligence, teamwork, subservience to authority, the coach as Cotton Mather, "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing", etc. are obvious. Real football, the game in which the ball is kicked, is the antithesis of American (actually Canadian) football, a loose, undisciplined fun activity that requires no special protective clothing and can be played almost anywhere, but mostly in the once Catholic countries of southern Europe and Latin America.

Well in that sense association football and American football are the same, lots of people play American football without pads in their back yards or anywhere, having fun. On a professional level what you say of association football is obviously not true.

No one needs to know the names of the linemen. Being a fan of football is like being a fan of military history in that way - we basically watch the field commanders (the QBs) and the generals (the coaches), and players at glamour positions (running back, wide receiver), who are like fighter pilots, snipers or cavalry leaders. The grunts are interchangeable to all but the most dedicated fans, and that is a virtue on television, not a vice. Moreover, the physical difference between an offensive lineman and a cornerback is like comparing a tank to a paratroop unit. They are separated on the field by more than numbers on a uniform, the casual viewer can tell them apart instantly. (It is also an odd fact of American football that offensive lineman tend to be white and most defensive linemen tend to be black). Soccer is a game of identically clad, physically similar, interchangeable individuals who blur into total anonymity on TV to the casual viewer.

Pro football teams are the 21st century sporting equivalent of Cromwell's New Model Army, institutionalized savagery. The quarterback, usually the highest profile and highest paid player on the team, is the relatively stationary target of low-paid, low-skilled, dime a dozen defensive players that attempt to freight train him while he's looking far downfield for an open receiver. When he gets flattened one-half of the viewers spill their nachos and guacamole in joy. That's called sadism, a pathology that's recognized and exploited by the most cynical people on earth, NFL executives, despite the fact that it's very difficult to find an adequate replacement for a starting quarterback. Interestingly, when a wide-open receiver drops an easily catchable pass, in a sport that records every possible statistic, it's put down as an incompletion by the quarterback. Of course, coaches keep track of dropped passes but only the most astute fans do. Why is that?

"low-paid, low-skilled, dime a dozen defensive players"

This is incredibly false. After Quarterback the highest paid positions are Defensive End, Linebacker, and Cornerback.

And there is no more of a freak of nature on earth than the NFL defensive end. Take Mario Williams here is what he measured at the NFL combine

6'7" 295 lbs 4.66 40 yard dash 40.5 inch vertical jump 10 ft broad jump 35 reps 225lb bench press.

So you have a guy who is as tall as a NBA basketball player, as heavy as heavyweight wrestler, as fast as a high school sprinter, and can jump like an NBA basketball player, plus really really strong.

Great! So this genetic anomaly gets to run full speed into a somewhat smaller stationary guy that's looking somewhere else and has that position because Mr. Williams isn't skilled enough to throw a football 65 yards accurately.

Well first he has to get by the second highest paid guy on offense, the Left Offensive Tackle who is nearly equally freakish.

Regardless. The defense is not the domain of " low-paid, low-skilled, dime a dozen defensive players" but the of high-paid rare athletes. There skill level is somewhat subjective depending on what you view as a skill.

Professional soccer is definitely not fun either, under these definitions. Run your ass off for 90 minutes and hope you're not too exhausted at the end of the game to do what's necessary. Ugh.

been reading too much spengler and yockey bro, throwing around the pigskin and tackling people is fun as hell

Yeah. No kidding some of the most fun I had as a kid was playing backyard tackle football.

Do kids still do this? We played pick up tackle games from elementary school through college.

Funny, but chess pieces dont have names or numbers on them yet we can still follow the game. At some point, it hardly matters which file a pawn came from or from which side of the board a rook or knight started from.

A few commenters have mentioned the social aspect, which I think is probably the best explanation. What am I going to talk about at the water cooler on Monday? I could have watched any of hundreds of movies or TV shows over the weekend, but there were only 16 NFL games and only one by my home team. That gives us a common subject to talk about.

So football replaced Carson? Quite possible.

To add to my point, scripted TV show have gotten much gayer in recent years. Yeah, Breaking Bad was good, but if you were a fan of it you've already seen it. About all I watch are Netflix DVDs and football. The baseball playoffs are good but I didn't watch much of the season because my local teams suck. It's fun to watch football, even if they aren't your local teams, because it is, play by play, the most dramatic sport.

I think a big part of that is that the NFL has gone to great lengths to make each team competitive and to eliminate the feeling that the refs or league or whatever 'wants' a certain team to win. Replays, reviews, coaches challenges, etc, most people think of the game as fair. Compare and contrast what people think of basketball. People say that the best players get better calls or no calls, that the more popular teams get the calls, etc. Not helped by the fact that they dont show fouls on the replay generally and you have a product that suffers from a credibility problem.

" the NFL has gone to great lengths to make each team competitive"

It's called the player draft, which proves that the league is entertainment, not competition. Microsoft doesn't get the exclusive right to sign software engineers according to some drafting ceremony. Then there's parity scheduling, in which the worst teams get to play other bad teams, which would create a revolution in baseball fandom.

Why can't sports be both entertainment and competition? (Although I agree the entertainment aspect is lost on most people)

Valid point, but a game has to be competitive to be entertaining, unless you're a Nebraska Cornhusker football fan that delights in their squad trouncing people 73-0. They haven't been all that entertained for the last few years.

Maybe because people are stupid... so they like to watch stupid sports together ;)

"One possibility is that precisely because there are so few common events to coordinate on, the ones that do coordinate become more important. Why football and not baseball or basketball? "

Yup. And football's scarcity makes it a much better event to coordinate on than baseball or basketball. Only hardcore baseball and basketball fans watch all the games. You can't have a shared cultural experience unless you can get the casual fans too.

I've heard fantasy mentioned, but fantasy football is more successful than fantasy baseball precisely because of football's scarcity. Fantasy baseball is too much work and you can't really trash tralk after each game. But fantasy football does easily coordinate over the weekend games. I only played for a couple years (I'm too casual a fan) but I still remember a geek gaming message board with a thread of "Noooooooooooo!!!111!!" the day one of the players benched Sean Alexander the day he scored 4 touchdowns.

Shorter answer:

tournament economics once again trumps the long tail. It's all about Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and football.

"Demographics don’t appear to explain the change. Football skews young, male and black but none of these are undergoing rapid increase."

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss demographics, it's not just the number of young, male fans that matter. If the young,male cohort is constant in numbers but increasingly underemployed and unable to start families, the number of football fanatics might also increase. These guys need to do something. Something that they can enjoy for the price of watching an hour's worth of beer commercials-and perhaps more importantly something that connects them to the larger culture---may be just the thing.

Pro football IS pop culture in high heels and fishnet stockings.

Before WWII it was very expensive to transmit broadcast signals. A lot of baseball was a recreation. Announcers would read the telegraphic update and make up the rest. Only the world series and the All-Star game would be broadcast nationwide. Baseball broadcasting became a business in which regional oligopolies were formed and it was difficult to hear anything other than the local team.

Football never developed these oligopolies, mostly because no one cared about professional football before WWII. After World War Two when network television was created the NFL began broadcasting nationally. National broadcasts for baseball were hampered by the fact that that regional restrictions were still in place and the national game of the week never really developed. So baseball has a lot of strong local brands but a poor national identity. The NFL has managed to have both.

The NBA tends to have a strong national brand but weaker local brands. Unless the local NBA team is really good there will be more interest in baseball. But the NBA does comparatively better nationally. That is because in basketball the superstar touches the ball a lot while in baseball the best player only comes to bat every five minutes or pitches about 18% of the innings. The NBA and the shoe companies market the superstar with a result that LeBron James is a much bigger deal nationally than someone who wins the Triple Crown in baseball.

The American Dream is to spend five days slaving away for other mens' aims, so that on the remaining two days one may sit on his couch and watch other men fling balls around.

Wait, it is, right?

Sports viewership has been positively correlated with the number of food stamps recipients.

http://www.devilsdictionaries.com/blog/food-stamps-and-the-fattening-of-america

Many time series variables are correlated. It's called spurious regression.

Lazy people receive food stamps, watch sports on the TV and complain about income inequality.

http://www.devilsdictionaries.com/blog/who-is-to-blame-for-poverty

Someone mentioned "Technological improvement" earlier, and I'd pile on that one.

Your initial economist's analysis assumed the product quality was constant, but in fact the TV production of a modern football game is quite amazing compared to what it used to be. Look at all the new camera angles, the better sound engineering, the graphics packages... The sport doesn't just present itself on the screen passively; there is a team building that product with the game as mere raw material. That product has been deliberately made more compelling over the years (helped by High Def, certainly).

I knew a guy who worked at the NFL who was more curious to see whether the improvements to the televised product would ever undercut stadium sales... Can HD be realer than real, from a crappy stadium seat? But my gut is that the two are not that interchangeable, that stadium ticket holders are going for an experience that is much more about community than the mere game itself.

football is objectvly better and more compelling, the increasing costs of it to companies and advertisers doesn't matter to the viewer, who enjoys the game and the improved cameras filming it. That's the answer, it's better. Baseball is boring, basketball is the same thing over and over.

The proliferation of (cheap) big screen, HDTV between 2003 and 2013 probably increases the visceral impact of football (war) more than of baseball and basketball -- and of sports (fighting) more than of literary dramas.

Has hockey gotten more watchable on the new TVs? It was terrible on TV in the old days, so I never imprinted on it. When I finally went to some matches as an adult I was astonished by what a great live spectator sport it is.

Yes, it's quite a bit better. The trouble with TV hockey is that it's so fast, almost as complex as football, and the puck is small and hard to see - particularly if you don't know where to look. Better TVs help with points (1) and (3).

It's still better live. The physicality is best observed up close.

The hockey business is not well run, and that hasn't exactly helped the sport.

Also line changes are a big part of hockey - which is blatantly obvious when you watch live, but they are often difficult to follow on television.

There is no comparison to live hockey but yes, it is awesome on a big screen HD tv.

So is baseball, weirdly.

And even weirder, all sports, for whatever reason, are still great on the radio.

Not soccer - I've tried - just doesn't work

Hockey players are absolutely the greatest human athletes. First of all, they have to be able to skate, and skate very well, a skill that must be learned at a very early age. Only a tiny fraction of the world's population can do it. No other sport requires the kind of vision necessary to play hockey. Baseball players must be able to concentrate visually on a ball in order to hit it or catch it. Football players could succeed with 20-60 vision. Hockey players need a 360 degree perception of what's going on at incredible speed in order to be even adequate. Hockey players can, and do, hit one another at a combined speed of close to 75 mph, football collisions are tame in comparison. A hockey puck can hit an unprotected area of a player at a speed of well over one hundred mph, who even knows how to measure the impact of a baseball fouled off a batter's shin? No football player ever endures anything comparable.

If you've ever played hockey, you'll wonder why baseball players jump away from pitches instead of in front of pitches. After all, a hit-by-pitch means you get on base. It's a slow-moving ball with lots of surface area. :)

There are lots of opportunities for great athletes in lots of sports. Hockey might have the best all-rounders.

Football is more event driven - you have to plan to watch it, making it ideal for planned events. Baseball, etc. is browsing driven - it's on all the time, so while you are surfing channels you land on it. Previous prosperity of baseball was, in part, a function of channel surfing, which doesn't really happen any more.

The funny thing is that football could become an even better TV sport in the future. Right now, placekicking and punting are pretty boring, but

Placekicking could be made more exciting by changing the goalposts or the rules to make field goals and, especially, the ridiculous point-after-touchdowns more of an accomplishment, less of a sure thing. Nowadays, placekickers are mostly noticed for missing, which is a waste of talent. That can be easily rectified. The NFL experimented during the preseason with longer PATs, and there are many other possibilities for making this aspect of the game more exciting.

For example, you could put a second crossbar on the goal posts that the kicker would have to kick the ball under, as in soccer. He'd have to aim lower, which means the defense would have a better chance to block kicks, which can be extremely exciting.

Punting might make a leap forward in interest too. When Utah upset top ten ranked UCLA a couple of weeks ago, the MVP for Utah might have been its Aussie Rules punter from Melbourne. Instead of just robotically punting the ball, he'd run around in the backfield to give his teammates time to get downfield and to improve his angle for pinning UCLA close to its goal line with a coffin corner punt. The pro-UCLA crowd in the Rose Bowl was saying things like, "Uh-oh, Utah's bringing out that punter again."

All true, but few care about making the sport "more interesting." All the sport needs is people to root for a certain outcome. Football has plenty of that, thanks to regional pride, Fantasy, and very high levels of gambling.

The actual sport being played doesn't matter at all. Look how many people watch soccer across the world, for God's sake.

True. There is no objective reason I can see why lacrosse shouldn't be more popular than basketball or soccer. It is just random advantages snowballing. Actually American football is too sui generis to be an interesting analysis. It would be interesting to compare a bunch of fairly similar outdoor team sports - lacrosse, soccer, handball, field hockey, aussie rules, rugby, and gaelic hurling. Could you make a case that one of these games is objectively more interesting to watch ?

American football's rules evolved primarily in what's now the Ivy League, so the domination of Harvard and Yale in American life helped propel American football forward.

Baseball grew out of a rivalry over the rules between Boston and New York, with the New York rules proving more popular with Union troops during the Civil War.

But both games are simply variants of very old European sports impulses.

For all you parents of three year olds out there: how a bout a career in punting for your child? Only 30-60 full-time jobs, but if you specialize early...

Chris Sailer, also of Notre Dame HS in Sherman Oaks, CA, has made a nice career out of running camps for young kickers, punters, and long snappers. These days, far more money is spent by parents on tutoring and grooming of their kids to win college athletic scholarships by specializing young than the scholarships are actually worth.

Long snappers is another niche area like punting.

Why are football fields always identical? Baseball outfields are all somewhat different. Golf courses change the hole location on the green regularly. Kid quarterbacks tell their receivers to "run up next to Dad's car and then take a right". Pro football would be more interesting and entertaining if for instance the field were wider at one end than the other or vehicles were parked in odd locations. How about a big hole near the center of the field? But, since everybody loves football and considers it the greatest of all sports, why change anything at all?

Sports is the only thing Cable TV is any good for. Even with the good shows that are currently on, there is nothing so compelling that I can't wait five years and watch it on Netflix, where it is more enjoyable anyway. When I'm in the mood for scripted TV, I just stream something on Netflix that I missed in 2008.

Live TV is for sports, and nothing else (save for disaster coverage). Football is the most popular because of Fantasy, gambling, and binge drinking, in that order. Fantasy is just low-level gambling anyway, but much more popular and acceptable. It gives you a rooting interest in teams and players outside your area, which is all the justification you need to watch football for 16 hours a week. While binge drinking, usually.

And the funny thing is how fast football could fall out of fashion. Boxing was huge in the past. So was horse racing.

If I had to bet on one sport that will still be clearly major league in 2100 in America, I'd bet on baseball. Not saying that it would still be the biggest sport, just that it's stood the test of time longer than other sports in America and seems likely to endure.

I like to go to a baseball game, turn off my phone, and watch time physically grind to a halt. The Great American Pastime.

The NFL, as my son points out, is The Great American Presentime.

Part of the rise of football's appeal is that it is rapidly becoming the last refuge of men.

So many other aspects of our lives have become, for a lack of a better word, "Sissified"

Football hasn't - altho the forces of darkness gather and bay about the neanderthals....

There's a giant amount of money to be made off of cable TV subscribers, at the moment. Huge efforts are being put into promoting football to preserve cable revenues. But at some point that will start going away pretty fast.

The question is why football has become *more* popular. Not why it was popular in the first place.

1. The sport is more exciting to watch now due to the rise of the passing game.
2. Tivo, Netflix, etc. have relaxed the budget constraint, so watching a Sunday night game doesn't mean forgoing viewership of another TV show.
3. Diffusion of HD TV, which is particularly good for viewing sports.
4. People who have moved from the North to the South adopt regional preferences for football (especially high school and college) over baseball.

A lot of good thoughts in this thread. My two cents: the rise in player pay has made players throwing games for betting purposes extinct. This makes the games more enjoyable for fans. There is fixing in baseball with doping and NBA with point shaving and even refs fixing games.

Also the rise of high power offenses makes the games more exciting to watch. The days of 3 touchdown stifling defenses are waning.

Perhaps the future will see the further evolution of some sort of hybrid of sports and scripts.

The NBA at its peak in the 1990s had a definite professional wrestling vibe to aspects of the game, such as Michael Jordan's baseball interregnum.

Before then, Don King and Muhammad Ali gave boxing some pro wrestling flair. Sylvester Stallone picked up on that and wrote a great script about a boxing match.

Perhaps in the future, the outcome of games will remains somewhat unscripted, but the athletes' interviews will be scripted by professional writers to make them less boring. Look how much public excitement over the last Super Bowl was increased by Richard Sherman's pro wrestling-style diatribe:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjOkTib5eVQ

Big leagues sports could easily afford to hire a couple of scriptwriters for each team to punch up quotes and devise complex feuds.

Y'know, I'm just happy to be here and hope I can help the ballclub. I just want to give it my best shot and good Lord willing, things'll work out... gotta play 'em one day at a time, Y'know...

There has been a general trend away from diversity in sports toward winner-take-all. In 1972, ABC's "Wide World of Sports" was a huge show among American sports fans with ski-jumping, Grand Prix racing, lumberjack sports, horse trotting, all sorts of stuff that no self-respecting American sports fan would watch anymore. Similarly, "Sports Illustrated" once covered a vast array of sports.

And this isn't just an American trend. In much of the rest of the world, soccer has become a near year-round monoculture.

One development is that few except SWPL American soccer fans try to social climb through their choice of spectator sports anymore (and it's pretty transparently dumb to think that rooting for Wayne Rooney makes you better than the masses).

In 1972, you watched Wide World of Sports in part to become more cultured and worldly. Some experts in Manhattan had decided that you should watch the bobsled races from St. Moritz, so you did. Some other experts in Manhattan decided you should read 8,000 words of exquisite prose about elephant hunting in Tanganyika, so you did.

That kind of self-improving sports fan who looks to elitist opinion seems pretty extinct these days.

"And this isn’t just an American trend. In much of the rest of the world, soccer has become a near year-round monoculture."

While reduced, America still has a pretty thriving Sports culture. Hockey, Basketball, Nascar & Football are all very large sports.

As to the rest of the world, Soccer does seem to be all you hear about.

I wouldn't count cricket or F1 out just yet.

I love Formula 1. This season will go down in history as a classic across all sports.

The British Empire in general, oddly, resisted soccer longer than anywhere else, especially the Anglo-Saxon countries. Australia has Aussie rules, South Africa has rugby, Canada has Canadian football, Ireland has hurling and gaelic football, India and Pakistan are Cricket crazy. It's only in the last 10-15 years that soccer has started to make inroads in Australia or India, and it is certainly not the number one sport in any of these countries other than maybe Ireland.

Most of today's global spectator sports were developed by English-speaking Victorians, so soccer primarily failed to catch on in other English-speaking countries, which developed their own sports.

The Anglo-Saxons were richer and got railroads early, which made away games possible. So, the history of sports in the second half of the 19th Century is coaches getting together after the season in railroad terminal hotels and arguing out new rule changes.

The Victorian Anglo-Saxons had a culture of fair play that probably helped them come to agreement more readily on rule changes. They took children seriously, too (e.g., all the great English-language children's literature of the 19th Century), so they invested a lot of serious effort into schoolboy games.

In England soccer was (at partly still is) lower- class sport. Rugby, cricket etc were higher class sport. When Brits started to export their sports, they started with higher class sports. Or from other side you can speculate that in India, in Pakistan, in Australia when they decided to adopt British sport, they went to higer- class sports first. Status decison, I guess.

War by other means. Football mops up a lot of tribal energy and generates communal sentiment. Without it, we'd probably be in full-scale sectarian warfare by now.

Here's a super-boring possible answer that does not elucidate much about anything:

Football's "true" appeal (which is to say, its appeal to a population who are not paying for it, and who do not have any existing cultural baggage around it) is higher than its historical popularity, and the popularity is steadily moving towards the appeal. This has been a slow process because Football is a relative late-comer, with Baseball (in this theory, a game with lower true appeal) has held the loyalty of sports consumers with lots of sunk costs. As those age out and new people come into families and social circles without residual Baseball loyalty, the appeal of Football wins out and its popularity rises. There's a feedback cycle here where as Football popularity increases, the amount of outreach the Football industry can do increases and they pick up more fans.

In this theory, the popularity of Football IS being decreased by NetFlix, it's just that that effect is smaller than the rise to its natural appeal.

I think others have hinted at this: Football was already the most social of American sporting events (trumped internationally only by soccer) and as other TV delivery has been delayed, football is has become also the most social TV event period. What else can you talk about at the water cooler without saying "spoiler alert" for your TIVO friends?

I hope you're proud of yourselves, Americans. You just got trolled about football by a Canadian academic.

I think Rossman has thrown himself off by interpreting Netflix as a substitute for football. He himself notes that other sports are not as popular, so this is not a Netflix-versus-football story at all. There is no substitution effect for people who want to watch football versus Orange is the New Black. It's an interesting conjecture but it fails to describe the real world.

The important thing is that football isn't just popular on television. It's also popular in the stadium, in high schools, in peewee leagues, in bars, in the office, in video games, etc. I don't have a good theory as to why it's more popular than [insert my favorite hobby here], but trying to explain it by analyzing the economic dynamics of television strikes me as being a severely limited picture of football's popularity.

It's a fantastic game at the high school junior varsity level, where the boys are coordinated and organized enough to mostly make plays work, but they don't hit that hard yet. By the high school varsity level, the game is already scary violent.

Is that a coach's whistle I hear, or merely a dog whistle?

I've observed that it's scary violent no matter whether or not the vibrants are involved.

The touchy pass interference calls they've introduced in the NFL this year are hurting the game imho, but I also find it difficult to explain why football is more popular. I grew up loving baseball when I was younger (70s and early 80s). In the 80s and 90s I was big into the basketball - both college and NBA - and stopped following baseball. Now that I'm older I only really follow football. Even baseball _highlights_ are boring to me, and basketball holds little appeal despite the fact that I played basketball when I was younger.

That said:
- I do think the lower number of games in a football season makes each game more important and more of an event than the other sports.
- The regular schedule of football on Sunday and Monday Night is a big "plus" imho. You never have to ask when football is played, and it can generate routine.
- Many may discount the impact of fantasy football, but I'm slower to do that. Non-fans will play and watch games simply because of the office fantasy league. This has greatly increased common knowledge of teams, players, and schedules.
- A not insignificant impact: you have many varied and even traditionally non-athletic body types in football. A 350 pound guy on the defensive line can be the team's best player and can dominate. Similarly, a little 5' 8" 190lb guy like Darren Sproles can be the most exciting player on the field; or a 175lb guy like DeSean Jackson. Fans can identify with different tactical roles, with specialization on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
- I'll go out on a limb here, but subjectively the "game" itself seems better to me. That may be a little like saying why one band is more popular than another, but personally baseball and basketball have largely lost my interest, while football holds it, but admittedly it's difficult to identify why.

I would be surprised if a big chunk of viewership growth has not come from women. My wife, a few years ago when single, actually took a "football for dummies" course just so she wouldn't feel completely out of touch with a topic of interest shared by many of the men she was dating. The class was jam-packed. I doubt such classes existed 10 years ago. Just a hunch. Another growth area has to be distribution; a lot of people subscribe to Direct TV entirely because they want the NFL package, and if they have Direct TV, they can watch many more games than is possible on cable.

Surprised it took so long for someone to bring this up - female viewership for the NFL (and NHL) have increased ~25% over just the last 5 years. The gender split is now about 60/40 men/women for most of the major sports at this point. It's like adding women to the workforce - even if male participation sags, overall trend is still positive.

My guess has a lot to do with brilliant marketing. At any time during the day you can turn on ESPN and see something that is both very compelling a primal level (competition, adversity, drama, drugs, sex, violence, tribalism), but is actually just a giant advertisement to watch the NFL. Sportscenter has been advertising posing as news for a very long time. As to why people submit themselves to this, we just aren't as rational as we hope we are when it comes to these primal topics.

Gambling and the NFL package.

Does anyone on this thread watch or follow football? Fantasy football, pick 'em leagues, etc., have made watching ALL the games entertaining versus in the old days when people mostly followed only the home team. Factor in bar-watching and the NFL package where fans have the ability to watch all the games -- and this gives fans the highs and lows of a casino or playing the stock market under the guise of "just watching football."

I haven't read all of the comments yet, but here are some other reasons for football versus those other sports:

- Scarcity (16 games versus 82 and 100+)
- Games (mostly) on Sundays/off-work days
- Easiest/most-accessable U.S. Sport to gamble on
- Easiest/most-accessable U.S. Sport for fantasy sports

Alone among the major sports, the NFL commands large national audiences for regular season games.

Some possible explanations:

1. Scarcity -- With only 16 regular season games (as opposed to 162 in MLB and 82 in the NBA) each one becomes a significant live event on its own, worth watching or following on your mobile device.

2. The rules have changed, with more passing and higher scores. That's made it more accessible to casual fans.

3. Fantasy football players follow many games each week, not just their hometown team.

4. The NFL was built for TV. Even more so in high-def.

Football probably has The Right Number of Games.

Baseball and basketball have far far too many games.

Football has about 1 a week for "your team" for a season which is "long enough" - the one a week big event weekend thing fits in with what people want from a spectator sport.

16 or so games is about right.

Fewer games per season means that it's easier to keep up with your favorite team.

Another factor is the rise of the Sports Bar. Before Buffalo Wild Wings came along, most "sports bars" were just sports themed bars that usually went out of business fast, because it was more comfortable to watch the game at home. Hooters was successful for a while, but it didn't appeal to many women and sports wasn't really the theme. BWW got the formula right, mainly by installing a first rate sound system, which, along with big screens, approximated the energy of being at the game. Now there are also many independent sports bars which have stolen the formula. Many young, childless people who otherwise don't like sitting around at home on a Sunday can Go Out and watch football on TV.

Also, sports bars + social networking leads to fans of particular teams getting together to watch games. I was recently at a sports bar in Dallas and surprised to find that the bar was packed with Buffalo Bills fans. Probably every major city has a bar for expats for every team in the NFL.

One thing that's peculiar about the NFL is how different the live experience is to the TV experience. Whereas, as noted in previous comments, many more women have become fans of the game, the crowd at a game will be 90%+ male, a much greater % than for baseball, basketball or college football (which women like much more than the NFL, because women are more tribal).

I'd argue that football is the only sport which is better on TV than in person. The camera adds drama because when the quarterback throws a pass, we see only the quarterback, not the receivers, then we cut to a different camera on the receivers and it's a surprise every time who has been thrown to and whether he is open or not. In person, it's all in one frame. An advanced viewer can make more sense of it in person, but a casual viewer can make more sense of it, and feel more suspense, watching on TV.

No, the spectator experience is better when you can see the whole field and occasionally anticipate what's going to happen, and thus feel like you are seeing the game like a real quarterback. At the Rose Bowl a couple of weeks ago, on a 93-yard touchdown pass I saw the receiver beat the coverage and was cheering before the QB released the ball. That's rare for somebody with poor situational awareness like myself, but it's better than having the cameraman swing the camera rapidly and then it's a surprise what happens.

In the future, we'll have 120 inch televisions and watch about 30 yards of the field at once.

You're right, the camera does swing. I don't know why I called it another camera.

I'm not sure every viewer wants to view the game like a quarterback. Some people probably enjoy the surprise, whether they know it or not. It gives the play a linear narrative, and camera swings are exciting and eye-catching.

I think one reason Americans find soccer boring is that the field of view on TV lacks the drama of American sports. Both football and baseball focus closely on one player for a while, then the ball is hit/passed and there's a moment where you look to see if the receiver is open or the fly is in a gap. There's a bit of cinema to it, the cameramen and director sometimes seem to sweat.

As an analogy, in radio days, when baseball was the national pastime, the announcers hammed it up a lot to increase the drama. That routine fly to left? Wow! What a catch! For decades the whole nation thought baseball was a lot more exciting than it really was.

You mention how football could easily lose its popularity fast like boxing and horseracing did. If I were the NFL the last thing I'd want is to change the way it's currently shot (or allow it to happen. If it were me, I'd write in the licensing agreements that the NFL has to authorize any significant changes in the way the game is broadcast).

Basketball, otoh, achieves cinematic drama through close-ups of the action. Soccer looks much less athletic if only because we are viewing it from a much greater distance. Expressive, wet faces add a lot to the experience.

Watching the baseball playoffs this weekend made me realize that the main reason baseball playoffs are so much more interesting than the regular season is that every player on the field, in the dugout, in the bullpin, carries the weight of the world on their shoulders and they can't hide it from the camera. Every face is tortured, terrified, pissed-off or elated. During the regular season, the players' faces mainly evince focused boredom.

I didn't see anyone mention that football has been very exciting to watch because of the, for the most part, parity between teams. There is little difference between the worst and the best teams (the Cowboys could actually be both). It is a sport that is in its golden age. Basketball (my personal favorite sport) will overtake it eventually. I do believe that there are only 17 games played by each team also helps. Think opera season...

Anecdotally, fantasy football and sports betting increase viewership. I know individuals who have consumed football for an entire season with and without gambling and/or fantasy, and both significantly increase viewer engagement. It easier than ever to play fantasy football, to place sports bets, or in a sense do both via fan duel or draft kings. Simultaneously, the rise of the RedZone channel and Directv's streaming options all promote greater consumption of a greater number of games. The NFL Ticket package allows fans of distant teams bypass the old model of broadcasting the local market games. I live in Los Angeles and know Boston, Cleveland, and NY fans who would be otherwise unable to watch their team who don't give a second thought to purchasing the $200(I think?) package.

The rise of Sunday and Thursday night football over past years allows for viewers to consumer a larger number of hours of football per week. One can now watch 5 games per week;1pm, 4pm, 8pm, Monday, Thursday; instead of 1pm, 4pm, Monday; a 66% jump in 'productivity'. Also, because of the ability to watch non-sports content on-demand, content that for marginal viewers no longer needs to compete directly with sports. This effect trumps the loss of the marginal viewer substituting out due to price.

Something that I don't think has been mentioned is the relative strength of owners and player unions in different sports.

Generally, owners have an incentive to promote the long-term success of the league, since it maximizes the value of their franchises. Player unions, on the other hand, have an incentive to focus on the short- and medium-term (basically, the careers of active players),

For the last few decades, the owners have tended to be in a much stronger position relative to the union in the NFL than in other sports, especially baseball. A possible turning point was the 1987 NFL strike in which replacement players were used and the owners were widely viewed as "winning". This was in sharp contrast to the 1994 baseball strike which wiped out the World Series. Unlike other major sports, the NFL hasn't had a significant labour disruption since 1987, and it seems that the owners have been able to make the league more and more successful.

Click through the data, sports viewership is up 27% but supply is up over 200%. That just means people are watching more because the teams and games they are interested in are more likely to be on. Also blackouts are on a largely downward trend (although smal uptick in last few years).

Mystery solved, no need for gladiator mumbo jumbo.

Here's the chart for blackouts:

https://bcud80.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/otl_a_blackout33_cr_354.jpg

Here's the click thru link for supply vs views:

http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2014/year-in-the-sports-media-report-2013.html

Thank you for making an excellent point. Your theory is much more elegant than anything else I read here, including my own guesses below.

Even threads about football are incredibly popular, apparently.

Football is the perfect violence for viewing because you do not see the blood and gore.

1. More violent, more masculine.

2. Relative rise of the South and West.

3. Lower attention spans(Baseball is long!).

4. Basketball is too "vibrant." Soccer is too foreign. Hockey is too regional.

5. Rise in importance of college sports.

If you ask NFL fans they will, almost to a man, say that one of the major problems with today's game is that the players are "coddled," and that the new rules have taken all the hitting out of the game. This is a completely insane thing to think. The average person watches on television, or in the cheap seats, which do a terrible job of communicating just how fast these guys are actually running, or just how big they actually are. And I'm not talking about highlight plays - on a down by down basis they are slamming into each other with a shocking amount of force. This is true even at the college level, and not just Alabama and LSU. Most people would be amazed at the level of athleticism on display by the second stringers for Eastern Michigan.

Actually, professional football has not gotten more expensive for the casual fan, i.e., the marginal viewer. You can usually watch about five games per week (including your home team’s game) on CBS, Fox, or NBC on Thursday or Sunday. These stations can usually be picked up over the air or with a basic cable package. Only Monday Night Football is on ESPN, which requires more than a basic cable package.
Remember that Thursday Night Football originally debuted on the NFL Network and is now on CBS. Why is that? Possibly not enough people willing to subscribe and bear the extra expense to watch a game on the NFL Network?

In my opinion, the financial sticking power of football is yet to be tested.

Okay, after reading all the comments, the only two possibilities that make sense to me are the following. Big screen TV's improving the viewing experience more for football than other sports, and mysterious cultural random advantages snowballing or something like that.

The popularity of various sports have waxed and waned over time, but once a sport finds a market it tends to hang around.

In my community of friends, we have a fantasy football league. Since that started, several grad students who never cared about football (including three young women from outside the US) now closely follow the season. I am missing out on a good deal of social bonding because I just can't be induced to care about football-based games. This sets me apart, as I am excluded from the many passionate conversations about the stats of this-and-that receiver. I won't surrender to the peer pressure, but I do have a hypothesis about how it works:

Netflix/DVR culture is atomizing. TV is no longer a shared cultural good. When I was a schoolboy, I could count on my peers having watched the same shows the night before, and this helped us stay in sync culturally. We had this to talk about over lunch. This can't happen with Netflix/DVR. I have no idea where Emily is in her Mad Men binge, and I'm not about to risk dropping a cruel spoiler in a conversation. Better to not bring it up. Even when you do, the conversation goes: "What's the last thing you saw?" "Oh, this horrific breakup!" "Ah, things are about to get really good, you're in for a treat!" "Thanks for making me feel lame for being behind your exalted omniscience. Your knowing the future, which is to me still a mystery, kind of cheapens the show for me." "Oh, sorry, I shouldn't have said anything."

NFL, Game of Thrones, and not too many other things are the last few programs that have the cultural power to force us to watch them when they're shown. And we really like the synchrony for all kinds of deep social reasons. They are what remains of the forum.

But that you include Game of Thrones implies the door is open. Another "must watch" scripted show could come along at any time. The major networks have thrown away a decade engaging in culture wars instead of producing good shows. But the door is open for them to produce another good show any day now.

Football and basketball have increased massively in popularity over the past 40 years, but baseball may be the story that is more predictive of where we are headed. In the mid-90s, baseball seemed destined for a secular decline. And it has declined greatly in relative status, but it has held its own in the objective numbers.

My bet for the next 50 years would be that football, baseball, basketball & hockey will all at least maintain their current real revenue streams. The only question is what else might come along and grow faster.

1. Men have fewer kids, more free time on Sundays.

2. Men on strike, who cares anymore what women want

The author has the wrong premise. Football has not gotten more expensive it has gotten cheaper. In 2003 it cost *me* no dollars spent and 3 hours on the couch to watch a game; today it costs *me* no dollars spent and 3 hours on the couch to watch a game. No price increase to the consumer. But the product quality, which is what the consumer cares about, has increased markedly which makes a quality-adjusted price decrease. S/D tells us that when cost decreases consumption increases - precisely what has happened.

HD TVs make the picture crystal clear; the first down line is overlayed on the field; that camera on the four wires gives some wonderful perspectives; score, timeouts, down&distance are constantly on the screen; players are fantastic. Many games plausibly come down to the last drive (last week 5 of 15 games were w/in 8 points. The week before, 9 of 15 were).

Finally, not really related, as TV viewership has gotten fragmented, sports (and football is the best TV viewing sport) becomes an easy shared experience.

Football has achieved its remarkable level of success largely as a result of online gambling and fantasy leagues. The ease with which people can bet on games has made it increasingly more popular and of course fantasy football is massive. Follow the money.

The unique thing about the NFL that makes it so attractive for gambling/fantasy is that it has a limited number of teams and takes place just once per week. Betting on other sports is simply too difficult. NFL is easy to follow takes place on your day off.

Football has always been popular but online gambling and fantasy leagues have allowed it to skyrocket in popularity.

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