Sam and Chris took different routes to end up at similar places. And I’d probably wind up there, too. It is indeed hard to imagine any other sport taking the place of the NFL…
But not impossible. After all, as Chris pointed out, baseball exercised a similar predominance at one point; in the mid-20th century, pro football and every other sport (with the possible exception of boxing, for fleeting moments) paled in comparison to the cultural preeminence of the National Pastime. Granted, it was a different kind of hegemony: the major leagues reached no further south or west than St. Louis, and national media coverage was less intense. But the stars of baseball were household names from coast to coast; baseball both held up a mirror to American society and served as engine for its change; baseball attracted the attention of the best American writers and European critics alike. (See Gerald Early’s essay on Jacques Barzun for a good introduction to several of these themes.)
And if the sporting hierarchy could change once, couldn’t it change again? It’s no doubt wishful thinking on my part, but I would give baseball a slightly greater chance to regain prominence — say, 20-25%. It’s already on the upswing on several counts, and I think it would actually benefit from the redistribution of athletes at least as much as basketball.
In particular, baseball would the logical landing place for the most multifaceted athletes and biggest stars in the modern NFL: the quarterbacks. Baseball America‘s list of high school or college quarterbacks drafted by Major League Baseball teams since 1967 includes several who went on to star in MLB (Ryne Sandberg, Todd Helton, Adam Dunn, Matt Holliday, Carl Crawford, Joe Mauer, Grady Sizemore), but then consider the Super Bowl Era team that could be composed just of star NFL QBs who, if they hadn’t had football as an option, could conceivably have stuck with their original baseball positions:
C: Tom Brady (drafted by the Montreal Expos, 1995) 1B: Steve Bartkowski (Baltimore Orioles, 1974) 2B: Joe Theismann (Minnesota Twins, 1971 — as a shortstop, but he'd slide over for...) SS: Archie Manning (Chicago White Sox, 1971) 3B: Rodney Peete (Detroit Tigers, 1990) LF: Daunte Culpepper (NY Yankees, 1995) CF: Michael Vick (Colorado Rockies, 2000) RF: John Elway (NY Yankees, 1981) LHP: Ken Stabler (Houston Astros, 1968) RHP: Dan Marino (KC Royals, 1979) LHP: Mark Brunell (Atlanta Braves, 1992) RHP: Kerry Collins (Toronto Blue Jays, 1994)
But tracking the destiny of athletes is just one way to approach this. The other is to speculate where football’s audience would go. And I don’t even mean the ticket-buyers or TV-watchers so much as the two (probably interrelated) groups that really define the NFL to me: whence the fantasy players and gamblers??
Here too, there’s an argument to be made for baseball, especially for the former group — since fantasy baseball (the original, after all) remains second only to football. But it also takes a much greater investment of time and attention, simply because of the length and day-in, day-out grind of the baseball season. I don’t think soccer’s statistics lend themselves all that well (yet) to fantasy sports (the official fantasy version of the Premiership claims 2.5 million players, not even 10% the estimated total of fantasy NFL players), but it comes closest to the working-for-the-weekend pace — albeit with the added wrinkle of non-league and international matches.
And then there’s the gambling, about which the Brits might have something to teach even the sports books in Vegas.
The fascinating part of the Premier League scenario is this: rather than attending, watching, living vicariously through, and gambling away life savings on a sport that is played almost exclusively by their countrymen, tens of millions of Americans doing the same with the EPL would betoken a profound reorientation of Americans’ relationship to the world — from needing to see themselves at the center of it, to joining a multipolar sports world in which Kobe Bryant’s jersey is more popular in China, Europe, and Latin America than in the USA and the British, during their own summer Olympics, were more likely to watch Usain Bolt than any of the UK’s gold medal winners.
Unlikely, but then I’ve already offed the NFL, so don’t tell me I can’t mandate a fundamental shift in worldview.