The rise and fall of football

Mention the concept of the NFL or football for that matter falling from its rank as the dominant sport in the United States, and be prepared to be labeled a fool. The NFL is enjoying the greatest success any sport in America ever has right now, and is somehow doing it all under the guise of a non-profit organization. The NFL is in the business of making the rich richer while making the poor feel rich, if only for a while, and it’s more efficient at reaching that end than most any industry.

But like great teams destined to rule for years as a dynasty (Cowboys, 49ers, Steelers, Patriots, etc.), great industries (newspapers, automakers, etc.), and great music (swing, disco, grunge), everything gets old. Everything reaches a highpoint and then realizes that the only thing that can follow a highpoint is decline. The NFL, football is at it’s highpoint. The Fall of Football has begun.

Now watch the Rise of Football. Excuse me … Futbol. American spell check doesn’t know what means, but it won’t be long before that’s fixed.

Soccer is the world’s game, and although we in the States like to think of our stuff as being the best, American football can’t hold a candle to the economic and social impact of soccer.  The figures below are from 2009, but still show the disparity in global popularity and prosperity.

While one argument I always hear about the NFL is that it’s too big to fail. If size matters, then it’s soccer who cannot fail and it’s not even close.  You don’t have to look at the international game to see it, either. In an article by Forbes in November of 2013, the undeniable success of America’s own Major League Soccer (MLS) accounts for the first giant steps to a monumental shift.

According to the article:

Now, there are 19 teams – with another New York City team scheduled to launch in 2015 and one in Orlando in the works. And with Hunt selling his second soccer team, Columbus Crew, for an MLS record $68 million this July, ownership is as dispersed and valuable as ever. Average attendance has surged to 18,600, a more than 35% increase from the 2000 nadir of just over 13,700.

Of course, these numbers pail in comparison to the NFL or even major college football, but the true signs of demise are not at the top, but at the bottom. Youth football is experiencing a drastic decline in participation, the likes of which they haven’t seen in decades. Hinging largely on the health issues of the last five years over concussions, parents simply don’t want their children put in harm’s way. According to a report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines: The nation’s largest youth football program, Pop Warner, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12, a sign that the concussion crisis that began in the NFL is having a dramatic impact at the lowest rungs of the sport.

And then there’s market saturation. I used to enjoy watching NFL pregame shows for an hour or two before kickoff. Now, I spend my mornings watching the English Premiere League games that start just as I’m waking up and usually lead me right until 1 p.m. It’s fantastic. The athleticism is astounding and the action is not boring as football purists would have you believe. There are more soccer games available on TV now than ever before.

Should I also get into the shifting demographics of the United States? Suffice to say that with a population becoming more diverse,  most of those different nationalities have one thing in common — their love of soccer.  It is infused in the blood of those who will make up a minority majority.

If this post were a thesis, I’d keep going, but I think the point’s been made. And I didn’t even play soccer, I played football. Pop Warner and high school. I love the game, I’m just not “in love” with it anymore.

It won’t happen soon. Not five or 10 years. But in a full generation, I expect the shift to be clear. Baseball had its run and the NBA’s highpoint proved to come at a time when the NFL was reaching its own so it will never hold the top spot. But when all of these economic and social factors eventually add up, it will be to the sum of soccer.


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