By almost any measure, the National Football League is the most popular and profitable professional sports league in the United States, and likely in the world. Popular? In 2011 all but two of the top 25 most watched telecasts in this country were NFL games, and a Harris poll earlier this year found that 36% of adults chose pro football as their favorite sport — nearly three times the runners-up, baseball and college football (13% each). Profitable? In addition to the $9.5 billion in revenue that the NFL takes in, it generates about $3.2 billion for TV networks and $5 billion for the economies of the cities that host its thirty-two teams (sustaining about 110,000 jobs as well).
So it’s been striking to read so many recent articles and posts speculate that the NFL is entering a period of decline. That type of talk started with growing concern about the short- and long-term physiological and psychological effects of playing football as a career, but it’s reached a new level thanks to fan and media outrage over the performance of replacement officials filling in while the regular referees were — until today — locked out in a contract dispute with the NFL.
For example… In the wake of the controversial call that ended Monday night’s Packers-Steelers game, Bill Barnwell of Grantland concluded:
The evidence is that NFL ratings are still sky-high, which suggests that the fans who complain that poor refereeing is “ruining” the game are still watching. And it’s true, maybe they are still watching. But as the season goes along, if the games continue to produce terrifyingly false endings like Packers-Seahawks, I’m pretty sure that’s going to change. The easiest way to get people to stop watching is to make them think that the games they’re watching are illegitimate and irrelevant. With the continued employment of replacement referees, that is the exact path the NFL’s games are on.
Indeed, it does seem to be that the referee scandal may have boosted TV ratings, and former quarterback-turned-ESPN analyst Steve Young might well be right that “everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There’s nothing they can do right now to hurt the demand for the game.” But I wonder if Ta-Nehesi Coates won’t end up having the most prescient take on the situation:
…I think what the NFL really faces is long-term brand erosion. Profits won’t disappear overnight. The NFL has a ten- or 20-year problem, not a next-year problem.
So even with the midnight deal that will return the regular refs to the field, and knowing that people will continue to watch for the near term, let’s have some fun with the idea that the NFL has a ten-year problem and conduct a thought-experiment:
It is the year 2022 and the NFL, for a variety of reasons, has ceased to exist. What is now America’s favorite sport?
To help me play out this highly unlikely but (to me) hugely entertaining scenario, I enlisted two of my favorite colleagues at Bethel University: Sam Mulberry (my partner in crime on a wide variety of academic and semi-academic projects) and international relations specialist Chris Moore (the star of our political affairs podcast, The Policast, which should be returning for its fall run in the next week or two). In addition to being knowledgeable sports fans, Chris and Sam are blessed with a unique ability to see world not only as it is, but as it might be… And to be funny in the process.
So here goes: I gave Sam and Chris a list of sports and asked them to assess the chances of each replacing a somehow-vanished NFL by the year 2022. Click to the next page to see what they said…