Officially, the National Football League season kicked off Thursday night when the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles topped the Atlanta Falcons in a penalty-laden contest, but today is the first full slate of games.
I, for one, couldn’t be happier. For all the nonsense surrounding new rules designed to make the game safer, an inability to determine what is and is not a catch, and controversy regarding standing/kneeling/locking arms/raising fists during the national anthem, for my money, there is not a better spectator sport than professional football.
Why? The reason, I think, is how the story of the game unfolds. Within the six-month story of every season, there are 32 shorter stories being told of each team, week by week; stories among each player; stories among every game, every set of downs, every play. It’s like no other sport.
Soccer remains the most popular sport in the world, and its popularity continues to grow in America; a Gallup poll released earlier this year found 7 percent of Americans called it their favorite sport to watch, a 3 percentage-point gain from four years earlier and the only sport to see a gain in popularity among those surveyed. And while that’s translated to a boost in attendance at Major League Soccer games, television ratings remain poor, according to a USA Today article from last fall, hovering around 300,000 viewers per game.
Football, by far, remains our country’s most popular sport to watch, with 37 percent of those polled by Gallup citing it as their favorite at the end of last year. And while the NFL has experienced a ratings decline in recent years, it remains a television juggernaut. A typical game was watched by nearly 15 million people, and Nielsen data showed that 20 of the 30 highest-rated shows on television in 2017 were NFL games.
Sal Palantonio, a longtime NFL reporter out of Philadelphia, touched on this in his 2008 book, “How Football Explains America.” He noted a significant rule change to American football more than a century ago that has allowed the game to become the most popular sport in our country: the advent of the first down.
“It clearly delineated a natural dramatic arc to the story on the field that wasn't apparent in the mass motion games of rugby and soccer,” Palantonio told NPR in an interview about the book.
Think about that. Mass motion games also include hockey and basketball. While I personally love hockey, I recognize how difficult it can be to watch on television. In fact, the most common complaint I hear about that sport is how difficult it is to follow.
Basketball is also a mass motion game, but whereas goals in soccer and hockey can be few and far between, the points come much more freely in hoops. The faster pace of the scoring makes it easier to hold one’s attention span.
(I also believe that frequency of scoring is the reason lacrosse remains a fast-growing sport and, if anything is ever going to challenge football in America as the most enjoyable spectator sport, it will be lacrosse. It incorporates the physicality of hockey with a higher-scoring game that is more accessible for young people to play because it doesn’t require an ice rink. But back to football … )
Unlike those sports, football has smaller goals to help achieve the larger goal of scoring a touchdown, which makes for more opportunities for drama as the story of the game unfolds, not just running up and down the field continuously until a ball or puck goes into a net.
About 15 years ago, I had the pleasure to interview former Pittsburgh Steelers great Rocky Bleier for the newspaper I was working for at the time. I remember asking him if he still watched the game today. He said he did, because he loved the drama of key plays – third down and whether the team went for it on fourth down.
When the game is over, we tend to focus on who scored touchdowns and other splashier plays, but when watching the game live, every third down presents high drama before the ball is even snapped.
And I can’t get enough of it.
As you read this, I will be making my way to hallowed football ground: Lambeau Field. While I’ve traveled to various football stadiums over the years, this is my first trip to Lambeau, home of the Green Bay Packers, one of the game’s most storied franchises. There are few places that live and breathe professional football like Green Bay. I think I’ll feel right at home.
Football is back, baby!