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A recent poll by Harris Poll showed that professional football -- the NFL -- is the most popular sport in the United States. The sport was cited as the favorite by 36% of respondents (SBD 2012). This is up from 24% in 1985. The same poll noted a decline in the popularity of baseball that was almost as severe, that sport dropping from 23% support in 1985 to just 13% in 2011. Where there was little gap between the popularity of baseball and football, the increasing popularity of the latter combined with the decreasing popularity of the former has resulted in a 23 point spread between the two. The survey also showed that this trend is expected to increase. Baseball scored well in the 50-64 demo, which football gained in the 30-39 demo. Clearly, football skews younger, giving it more potential for growth than baseball has, with its aging fanbase. The only hope for baseball is its continued support among Hispanics, a rapidly-growing demographic (SBD 2012).
Other sources have also noted the surging popularity of football and the decline in popularity of baseball. There are a number of theories as to why these two sports -- in the mid-80s sharing popularity -- have diverged so much in that span. It seems that demographics are part of the story, but only part. Football has distinctly different elements as a game than baseball, being team-oriented rather than individual-oriented. It is a game played mainly by Americans, where baseball rosters today feature a large percentage of non-Americans. There is marketing, in which the NFL is known for its excellence. Also, the NFL is a violent game. This better suits the aggressive American temperament. As a nation, we have a history of violence, and a relatively passive sport no longer seems to appeal to our sensibilities. This paper is going to explore all of these different factors to try to identify the key drivers in the passing of the mantle of America's most popular sport from baseball to professional football. It is believe that the violent nature of the sport is one of the most significant factors.
The game of football began life as rugby football, originated in the eponymous town in England, where the game evolved with carrying the ball, and throwing it backwards in order to advance the play towards the goal. This game was quite similar to modern rugby, and naturally transferred across the ocean. At the time, it was a game typically played at universities and colleges, and each one would have had its own version of the rules. This actually accounts for the differences between football and Canadian football, as that game was originated in the 1860s with slightly different rules but generally the same principle.
Walter Camp is credited with the founding of American football as differentiated from all other types (soccer, rugby, Aussie rules, etc.). He codified such defining elements of the game over a period in the 1870s, including the line of scrimmage, the snap and downs -- there were initially three until 1912. The touchdown already existed at this point, being part of rugby. A rules committee presided over refinements to the rules of the game and Camp contributed to this committee until his death in 1924. The rules committee would eventually become the NCAA. The first professional player was William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, under contract in 1892 to the Allegheny Athletic Association for $500 for a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club (ACSU 2011).
Even during this period, football was violent game, as rugby had been. Many schools were forced to ban early football matches because they were so violent and unruly (ACSU 2011). The aggressiveness of the sport is said of have matched the mentality of the American people, at a time when the nation was still quite young, recovering from the Civil War, but also burgeoning under the Industrial Revolution and westward expansion. This was a big, bold time in American history and the rapid rise in popularity of football is said to have reflected that (ACSU 2011). The rise of baseball during this period -- it was an earlier professional sport -- reflects the availability of leisure time and the tentative first developments of the nation's middle class.
Despite its popularity, football remained controversial. In 1905, President Roosevelt threatened to ban the game because it was so violent, and causing so many injuries to its participants (ACSU 2011). This threat spurred critical rules changes, including the development of the forward pass. By 1918 receivers could catch the ball anywhere on the field, bringing the game closer to what we see today. These changes made the game safer, but they also improved the quality of game play, increasing the sport's popularity. The American Professional Football League, the precursor to the NFL, was founded in 1920 as the country's first professional football league.
By this point, the game was more or less familiar to the modern audience. Football's popularity increased with the advent of the Super Bowl in 1967, as a means of determining a national champion at a time when there were two leagues -- the second being the American Football League. The Super Bowl was one of the conditions of the two leagues to stop competing and eventually merge. Football was already a popular television property at this time, albeit less popular than baseball, but the Super Bowl quickly established itself as a major sporting television property, setting the stage for the growth of the sport to new heights.
Another major issue that emerged in 1968 was that of the work stoppage. The NFL Players' Association voted to strike, and was locked out by the owners, for only 11 days. The result was the sport's first collective bargaining agreement. Subsequent work stoppages damaged the brand but were resolved quickly.
The trajectory of baseball is slightly different. The game developed into a major professional sport quickly, becoming the first of its kind. Baseball existed in two major leagues and a series of Negro Leagues in the first half of the 20th century before the sport finally desegregated. Baseball was the major sport in America for most of its existence, and it was only in the 1980s that this really changed. Baseball's popularity was already in decline when the 1994 World Series was cancelled on account of a strike that started in the middle of the season. This cancellation and ongoing strike that stretched into the next season were catalysts for a further decline in popularity of baseball, as it was felt by many fans that with the cancelling of the World Series a sacrilege had been committed.
By this point, the Super Bowl was already the most popular televised event -- sporting or otherwise, further cementing the rise to dominance of the National Football League. The rest of this paper will focus on the different factors that contributed to these different trajectories for the two sports.
Football has always been a violent sport, and this has long mirrored the American temperament. It can be argued that the rise of baseball was tied to an era of American growth and optimism, where perhaps the post-60s era has ushered in a new era of American culture. First, a look at sporting violence. Violent sport has always been popular in America, but there is an across-the-board rise in the popularity of violent sport in the past couple of decades. As the biggest sport, the NFL has been the primary beneficiary of that rise, moving from 24% to 36% of people claiming it as their favorite sport. Snyder (2013) does note that baseball is highly popular, even if not being many fans' favorite. In this survey, the only other sports to increase in popularity over this time period are college football, auto racing (mainly NASCAR, known for its aggressiveness and crashes) and hockey. The non-violent sports, including baseball and basketball, all declined in popularity during this period (SBD 2012). This indicates a broader trend towards violent sports in America. While the popularity of college football and the NFL would naturally be correlated, and football is the most popular sport in NASCAR heartland, the inclusion of hockey on this list is significant because that rise is not related at all to football, nor does it take place in the South -- it is not just a rise in the popularity of violent sport in the South but all over the country. Both hockey and NASCAR have regional roots that place constraints on their ability to gain a nationwide audience, but football has always had broad geographic appeal.
Deford (2012) notes that the dichotomy between "pastoral" baseball and "brutal" football has been widely observed, and that the shift in allegiances between these two games represents a shift in American culture. The demographics from the Harris poll support this theory, with the 30-39 demographic favoring football by a wide margin while baseball enjoys popularity with that generation's parents. Deford also speculated at a gender explanation, that football…[continue]
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