NFL continues to grow in popularity, despite doomsday predictions
January 31, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers fans gather at the County Courthouse, Downtown, during the Steelers Playoff Rally.
By J. Brady McCollough / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Every day across our nation, football is happening.
In the Carolinas and the Rocky Mountains, the title-hungry cities of Charlotte and Denver prepare for battle on the world’s biggest stage.
In St. Louis, a fan base slowly accepts that its beloved team is leaving for a sweeter financial nest, while in Los Angeles, they await the return of their Rams, the continuance of a Sunday ritual.
In Virginia, a 36-year-old former Super Bowl hero named Antwaan Randle El becomes a headline because he questions whether he should have chosen to play the game.
In Iowa, Tyler Sash’s parents mourn the death of their 27-year-old son who played in the National Football League. They now have clearer answers, thanks to a doctor in Massachusetts who looked at his brain.
And, inside a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan, the numbers from another day’s offering to the public come in. It turns out that an average of 49.7 million Americans watched the AFC and NFC championship games last Sunday, an 8 percent increase over last year.
We are now a football nation, plain and simple, and maybe there’s no turning back. When it comes to our interest in the sport, it doesn’t seem to matter that Sash, an ex-New York Giant, and others who have died young have been linked to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive head trauma, first brought to light by the death of Hall of Fame Steeler Mike Webster. Or that more former players like Randle El — a former Steeler who recently told the Post-Gazette that he struggles to walk down stairs and has short-term memory loss — are living proof the game is not safe for the men who play it.
Randle El, who tossed one of the most famous touchdown passes in Super Bowl history just a decade ago, now wonders whether the game will even be around in 20 to 25 years.
As Sunday’s landmark 50th Super Bowl approaches between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos, the numbers, of course, say that it absolutely will.
“The news issues away from the field have had absolutely no impact. … None,” said John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president for programming and production. “The NFL continues to have just an incredible grip on the American sports culture.
“Speaking as just one person, forget that I work at ESPN … I think those who forecast the demise of football, not only the NFL, but football in the future of this country, that’s overstated.”
ESPN, with its hours of cable air time to fill, made the prediction that America couldn’t get enough football. In 2015, it devoted an average of four hours a day to NFL-specific programming alone. The network will spend $15.2 billion on NFL broadcasting rights during a 10-year deal that started in 2011 — and billions more in broadcasting rights deals with college football’s top conferences.
Forty-nine years ago, when the first Super Bowl (it didn’t actually go by that name until Super Bowl III) was played between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the NFL trailed college football in popularity on a national scale. Longtime broadcaster Dick Enberg, who covered the game, remembers there being more interest in the NFL Pro Bowl all-star game for the partisan LA football fans, because at least they could watch all the stars at once.
“You could get a ticket [to the Super Bowl] for $10,” Enberg said. “Now, the program is $15.”
Generations who grew up on NFL Films’ mythical portrayals of the classic games now live for beating their buddies in fantasy leagues. Some of the romance of the game is gone, but the emotional connection to it has only strengthened.
According to a Post-Gazette online survey, 31 percent of 1,400 respondents say they would consider themselves addicted to football. Among another group of 605 respondents, 80 percent feel conflicted when they see a head injury during a game.
So then what would it take for them to stop watching?
A mythical pull
A recent NFL ad campaign tells us “Together, we make football.” It’s a clever marketing strategy, the imagery lumping people of all ages, backgrounds and sensibilities into one big pigskin-loving community. Football, with 11 men pulling in one direction and thousands cheering the synchrony from their seats or sofas, can really make you feel a part of something.
Say you were Keith Cossrow in the 1980s, a boy growing up in Mt. Lebanon, and your first Steelers game was the 1982 playoff loss to the Chargers at Three Rivers Stadium, the true end to football’s greatest dynasty. During the rest of a depressing decade, he’d watch NFL Films videos of the 1970s Steelers, wondering whether his ill-timed birth really had deprived him of witnessing his team’s and his town’s greatest glory.
When he heard the legendary bass of NFL Films narrator John Facenda, say, “There are 27 teams in the National Football League, and then there are the Pittsburgh Steelers,” it felt like Pittsburgh was a cut above. Plus, Cossrow couldn’t deny it: The cinematography alone was captivating.
“When you used to see the shot, tight on the spiral, the ball spiraling through the air in super slow-mo with the perfect piece of classical music, I was like millions of kids,” said Cossrow, now a longtime producer at NFL Films. “After seeing that, I went out into my back yard with that music and voice in my head and threw the football myself…
“It just felt like football mattered when you watched those.”
Long before visionary commissioner Pete Rozelle brought to life NFL Films as the league’s premier marketing arm, football had taken hold of a large swath of the country. City dwellers may have been more preoccupied with picking up the paper and dissecting that morning’s baseball box score, but in small towns and quirky outposts from coast to coast, football was churning something deeper in America’s soul.
The game grew after World War I, as the forward pass revolutionized the action. And as the number of young men attending high school and universities grew nationally, so, too, did the popularity of college football.
“Commentators who pondered the relative popularity of baseball and football early in this period frequently concluded that baseball was Americans’ national pastime but football our greatest spectacle,” wrote Michael Oriard in his book “King Football,” which examines the growth of the game pre-television.
On television, the game appealed to an audience that yearned for what Oriard described as a “heroic masculine character.”
“It’s innate in the human soul to want to see other men fight each other and have conflict,” Enberg said. “Boxing’s a classic example, and they don’t want to see just a boxing match. They want to see someone knocked out. Football fits into that.”
Some credit the 1970 advent of Monday Night Football as a turning point in the NFL’s ascension to the top. But for many others, it always comes back to NFL Films.
“The head bangers of the 1970s, the crazy guys, the crazy hits,” said Ralph Cindrich, a former NFL player and one of the game’s most successful agents. “Everything that is disliked right at this time, that part of it was glamorized for the public to see. Taking all of that and then having the iconic announcer [Facenda], the symphony music behind … it gave me chills.”
When the Rev. Hollis Haff looks at his congregation at New Community Church in Pine on Sunday mornings in the fall, he will see 20 to 30 churchgoers wearing black and gold jerseys. When the Steelers play at home, the attendance will increase at the 9 a.m. service because the 11 a.m. service will push the time too close for people to make a 1 p.m. kickoff at Heinz Field.
It’s just the way of our world, and Haff has been known to preach on the topic from time to time: Why is it so easy for people to stand up and scream for a football team but not for their God?
“It’s the human condition,” Haff said. “Man, the worshipper. God has created us to worship. The question is, what are we going to worship? The human condition seeks to worship something that it can control, something that it can wrap its head around. We avoid the true God. We worship money, career, or football, or anything, and it becomes our highest allegiance.
“You latch onto a pro sports team, particularly a winning one, because it gives your life a sense of connectedness and something bigger than yourself.”
Of 1,000 respondents to a Post-Gazette online survey, 49 percent say they watch at least four hours of football per week. Fifteen percent say they watch at least 10 hours. Certainly, there are a large group of Americans who maintain a healthy relationship with football. How do people know when their relationship with the game has become unhealthy?
“There are very simple ground rules,” said Josh Klapow, an associate professor of public health and a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
First, Klapow said, if your mood or emotions are dictated by your team winning or losing. Second, if you get physically violent when your team loses, not necessarily with another person. Third, if you routinely avoid responsibilities in your daily life, like missing your child’s game or recital. Fourth, if people have told you that they don’t enjoy sharing the game with you anymore.
“I tell people this: If that’s your pattern of behavior, if you can say yes to those things, you’re putting yourself in a position where this wonderful thing is going to end up becoming miserable for you,” Klapow said. “Most of that is because you’re trying to exert control over your life by watching something that you have no control over.”
To Stanton Peele, an addiction expert, it’s a matter of asking ourselves a question: Is football too often getting in the way of what’s important?
“How is it affecting the things you care about?” said Peele, who wrote the book “Recover!” “In the case of football, do you neglect your children? Do you neglect your wife or spouse? If it’s hurting your relationships, then it’s hurting you.”
Add in the hours of sitting, the copious greasy food and the alcoholic drinks, and the negative health effects of football fandom can pile up like a plate of nachos. Fifteen percent of 1,400 respondents in a Post-Gazette survey said they normally consume at least five alcoholic drinks when watching football.
“This is human,” Klapow said. “We’ve taken something that we enjoy, that we get pleasure out of, and we see how we can make it more pleasurable.”
A cloudy forecast
Football’s future is up for discussion, and, with TV ratings serving as the barometer of public interest, the American people hold the key to its longevity. What will we care about in 10 years? What will our children care about in 25? What will their children care about in 50?
The participation numbers in high school football nationally are dropping by a small amount each year — according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there were 27,880 fewer kids playing in 2014-15 than in 2008-09. Still, more than 1 million kids are playing high school football.
The question is whether fewer children playing football will lead to an emotional disconnect from college football and the NFL over time.
“The real issue the NFL has is that more parents are saying ‘no’ to letting their kids play football at all levels,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a vocal critic of the NFL, said in an email. “As far as viewership, it really depends on what’s next. What other sports and other forms of entertainment do.”
The NFL has gotten plenty of attention for changing its game to better protect players from head injuries. At the youth level, the league is now full steam ahead in promoting flag football with its NFL Flag program. The day after the NFL advertised NFL Flag during the Steelers-Broncos playoff game, 70 parents contacted the Pittsburgh Flag Football League, interested in their kids playing flag football to learn the game.
“We got an infusion of interest,” said Chris Curd, a former Pitt wide receiver who runs the league, which he estimates will have 200 kids in the spring. “Last spring was really the first infusion of parents that were saying, ‘My 8-year-old would love to play tackle, but I’d like to get him an introduction via flag.’ ”
As long as college football programs offer full scholarships, there will be parents who are interested in their sons exploring their talent. Each year, in the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision combined, there are up to 18,000 of those scholarships available — a form of social mobility that is only surpassed in America by Pell Grants and enlistment in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Enberg suggested that college football — the NFL’s free minor-league feeder system — would have to go to a truly amateur model for there to be major change in the game’s popularity.
“You can always find people to fill the rosters,” said Cuban, a Mt. Lebanon native. “There is too much money. People will trade long-term health for short-term money.”
Maybe there will always be a labor force for the NFL. But will America always have the same passion for the game?
“There’s a reason that football is still getting more popular today, even after the things being discussed,” Cossrow said. “We really, really love football. It’s undeniable, the positive impact football has on lives at the community level, at the individual level. Those are the reasons that we love football, that we watch football, that we can’t get enough of football. It’s a lot more than just having a fantasy team.”
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.
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