Why football rules in the US (by tennis writer Frank Deford)
By these points, tennis will *never* be popular in the US...
Pro football rules in America; SI's Frank Deford explains why
While it has long been accepted that though baseball may be our national pastime, football is our favorite sport, never has pigskin preeminence been more evident than now, as our hideously mesomorphic gladiators hie off to training camp again. Hardly any other sport is prospering. Ratings for the NBA and NHL playoffs plummeted to new lows, baseball attendance is down again, and even hot-stuff golf only exists anymore when Tiger Woods plays well or Annika Sorenstam plays men. Well, horse racing is making a comeback this summer; unfortunately, this is 2003 and horse racing is coming back to 1938.
But, ah, football is more popular than ever, truly king. The NFL has its $18 billion TV package (over eight years) and is coming off a season in which 90% of its games were sold out and the Super Bowl had its usual audience that will not be exceeded until Princess Diana is buried again. Moreover, we're only now finally learning that the NCAA and all its other sports and conferences are just so many incidentals. It's the NCFA. Remember when the Atlantic Coast Conference was supposed to be about basketball? Even Donna Shalala is in shoulder pads now.
So apart from the obvious, that we violent Americans just plain like smashmouth, how do we explain football's power and popularity -- especially in an economic time when so many other sports (including soccer abroad) are losing paying customers, TV eyeballs, money and glamour?
The old real estate saw about location, location, location applies here, except that what matters is schedule, schedule, schedule. Every other sport (save one; we'll get to that) has games that go on all week long. Football teams play once a week, on the weekend. The games in other sports blur. If it's Tuesday, it must be Dick Vitale. To hell with thinking outside the box. Football is very boxy. It always gives us just one game per team a week, which we can look forward to and analyze and, yes, even better, commit to with a wager. The games are discrete. We get up for them. We're all experts. The game-a-week setup is good for betting too.
The only other major sport that's on the uptick is NASCAR. And isn't it interesting that NASCAR's schedule is basically like football's: relatively few competitions, neatly scheduled, all on weekends. Also, nobody dominates NASCAR. NFL parity might be boring, but parity pays. The amazing thing, too, is that while NFL socialism so obviously works best for everyone, it really doesn't exist anywhere else in the sports world. Just as only a few teams have much chance in the major leagues and the NBA, so is it pretty much that way elsewhere: Manchester United and Real Madrid and Juventus and the Yomiuri Giants are the over and everybody else is the under. Parity is good for betting too.
Also, football has the right season. The baseball poets all rhapsodize about their game melding with the calendar, blooming in spring, tra la. Yeah, but football starts when the real year begins, after vacations, when school opens and families settle down to eat fatty foods and watch TV. The season climaxes at the gloomiest, coldest time of the year, when television is most seductive. Football doesn't even need to play games in our second-largest city. TV trumps L.A. Having everyone around the tube is good for betting too.
Finally, maybe these times are most in tune with football. At a time when the United States is arrogant, unilateral and insular, baseball can have all its Latins and Asians, and basketball can have all its Croats and Lithuanians, but football is still ours, 100% pure 'Mercan. It's ironic. Although George W. Bush is of baseball, he operates with none of the patient rhythms of the sport but simply charges ahead. He is perhaps the most un-baseball president since the unrepentant Teddy Roosevelt, who declared: "In life, as in a football game ... hit the line hard." Bring it on.
Also, football is best for betting.