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Is football dying?

Jan 2, 2014, 3:32 PM EDT

Deflated Football

As baseball news is at its offseason nadir, it’s time to take note of something everyone is noticing but no one is willing to discuss openly: professional football, which used to be America’s most popular sport, no longer has a hold on the nation’s consciousness.

Over the years, you have heard myriad explanations for football’s declining popularity. High-definition television making people less likely to go to stadiums. The increasing sophistication of video game consoles creating a more appealing form of home entertainment. People’s increasing love of Sunday marathons of “Top Gear” on BBC America. All are valid explanations. But they have not seemed to detract from America’s new favorite pastime: baseball.

Look no further than this past season’s playoffs. Sellouts in Boston, St. Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles. Everyone from the cop on the corner to the man on the street enjoyed the baseball playoffs and Fall Classic. It really brought our nation together.

But the NFL? Costs are skyrocketing, pricing out the common fan. Playoff teams struggle to sell tickets. When the league should be celebrating its moment in the spotlight it finds itself enmeshed in controversy. A mere five years ago no one would have predicted that baseball would trump football in a popularity (non)contest like it does now. But they probably should have.

And to be clear: football’s declining allure has nothing to do with costs, the prevalence of social issues in the discourse or even the natural ebb and flow of popular entertainment. It has to do with the sport itself. There’s too broad a canvass on which to paint needed progressive change in football. Literally. There’s too much space.

Including end zones, a football field is 120 yards long and 53 yards wide, giving it a playing-surface area of 8,242,560 square inches. Eight million-plus square inches is far too much space for its participants to cover, both literally and thematically. It’s strategic schemes are simultaneously far too broad and far too intricate, and thus there is far too much required of the fan to accommodate the sport’s advancements.

Baseball, on the other hand, has a relevant playing surface area of a mere 216 square inches. That’s the area of home plate. Yes, baseball fields are about the same overall size as football fields, but the field does not become relevant until someone hits one of the pitches thrown to home plate. The sport hinges on what takes place near those 216 square inches. There are only so many things an athlete can do when confined to such tight parameters. There are only four things, really: throw a strike or a ball and swing the bat or don’t. Fans can handle something as simple as that. The entire game’s perfection is confined to a reasonable area, clearly seen by the home viewer and the fan in the overflowing stands alike. Granted, this is an oversimplification of a long-lived sport like football, but it is a clear explanation for why football’s best days are behind it.

Is football dying? The playoff game ticket sales, the sport’s own natural evolutionary limitations and the history of similar sports say yes. It’s just a matter of how quickly. The rate of football’s demise can easily turn into something of a mathematical argument based on presumption and perspective (two things that do not mix well with numbers). The National Football League came about in 1920. The sport’s golden age – its teenage years, if you will – was the 1960s through, oh, let’s call it early 2013. So perhaps football hasn’t even reached its midlife crisis yet. And yes, football’s TV ratings for the upcoming playoffs may show the sport to be back in full swing.

Bt in the big scheme of things, fewer people are going to playoff games. Meanwhile, the Spring Training is a little less than a month and a half away, and new records for attendance will probably be set.

Evolution at work.

My thanks to Kyle Daugherty for inspiring the idea of this post and to the New York Times’ Andy Benoit — and many other silly doomsayers of baseball — for inspiring the structure.

396 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. kisstherings - Jan 2, 2014 at 9:48 PM

    Lol. Possibly the most moronic article I have ever read (or skimmed rather). The only reason I came across it is because I saw a football under the football section and thought it was a mistake.
    The mistake is yours dude. Sure, baseball can sell out its 40k seat stadiums for the playoffs, because nobody cares about baseball UNTIL the playoffs.
    Check the League revenues and tell me football is dying.
    What a joke.

    • Paul Zummo - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:18 PM

      I love serious comments about obviously satirical articles. There’s something about the obtuseness of such comments that I find endearing.

    • Minoring In Baseball - Jan 3, 2014 at 6:07 AM

      Ok, so you saw a football under the football section, and thought it was a mistake? Ladies and gentlemen, a football fan! Baseball is a thinking man’s sport. Football seems more for lazier sports fans, that commit to a game once maybe twice a week. Hey, throw some nachos in a bowl, and you’re a football super fan! Baseball is more complex, more difficult to play, and therefore it takes a special fan to embrace what is America’s past time.

  2. davidbrentfan - Jan 2, 2014 at 9:53 PM

    EVERYONE ON THIS MESSAGE BOARD IS A B A S T A R D EXCEPT FOR ME! F U C K YOU, B A S T A R D S!

    • nbjays - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:59 PM

      We have a winner for the most thoughtful, reasoned and evocative post. Well done.

      /sarcasm

      (I thought I’d better point out that my post was sarcasm. Craig didn’t do that with the main article and look at all the football fan nerd rage he brought out.)

      • historiophiliac - Jan 3, 2014 at 10:44 AM

        But, who *is* his daddy?

  3. crowdedtrophycase - Jan 2, 2014 at 9:56 PM

    Dream on. Unfortunately, 21st century society requires gratification delivered instantly. An incomplete pass is inherently more interesting than a foul ball. Or several foul balls.

  4. kappy32 - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:00 PM

    So much to say about this topic & I need to begin somewhere. I have always loved both football & baseball. I played both as a youth, but when the sports got competitive, when I had to dedicate all my time year-round to one sport, I had to pick one. I picked football over baseball because I was better at football & I enjoyed the physical contact in football more than the lack of contact in baseball. I don’t regret that decision one bit. I was able to play football through high school & into college; I don’t think I would have been good enough to play beyond high school baseball. Now, as a spectator, I must say that I still prefer football over baseball. You made a very good point when you said that the game of football is much more complex than baseball. I absolutely love the strategy behind football. I love watching tape, looking at formations, and guessing what play is coming. I love watching defenses mix up their coverages on quarterbacks between man, cover 2, cover 3, quarters, etc. I love seeing the in-game adjustments that occur on a football field. When a team goes into a game with a strategy & gameplan to beat the other team & it doesn’t work, it is amazing to see teams have the talent to adjust on the fly & completely change-up the game plan. I love the stressful decisions that are made when the game is on the line. Do you go for it on 4th & 1 at midfield, down 4 in the 4th quarter with 5 minutes left & only 1 timeout in your pocket? Do you kick it deep or onside kick the ball down 3 with 2:15 left & 2 timeouts? I love that stuff. It is also why I prefer NL baseball over AL baseball; as a matter of fact, I hate AL baseball & I feel managers are absolutely useless. With that being said, I do agree that football is losing it’s popularity, but I do not think it is as bad as you portray it to be & I certainly don’t believe the lack of playoff sell-outs is evidence of a decline in popularity.

    The biggest problem facing football is the catch 22 they are in with player safety & maintaining the physical appeal of the game. As I mentioned above, I chose football over baseball in part because of the physical contact in football. It was a legal, mostly safe forum to release my aggression. In recent years it has been discovered that the physical nature of football has long-lasting, horrendous physical affects on the players. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has become a serious issue in the NFL. Far too many men are committing suicide, acting violently, and having their once-strong bodies whither away to nothing due to CTE. There has finally been a direct link between repeated head trauma & concussions in football to CTE. This has caused the NFL to engage in CYA mode to avoid future multi-million dollar liability for CTE & other TBI-related illnesses. As a result, the NFL has become changed its rules to “promote player safety,” or “cover their asses.” The rules have changed to the point that wide receivers & QB’s can run around the field & not get hit hard at all. The new rules have made a position that was once filled with some of the sport’s greatest names – Running Back – become expendable & almost irrelevant. Records that have been in place for decades – passing & receiving records – are falling like toy soldiers in a blizzard; just look at Calvin Johnson in 2012 & Payton Manning in 2013. For football traditionalists like myself, this is not the NFL or the sport that I grew up playing & loved playing. The rule changes to promote player safety have taken away from the game to me. I still love it, but not like I used to. It also has an affect on younger athletes. More & more parents are not allowing their kids to play football due to the possible long-term physical affects. When kids reach high school, they are more inclined to devote their time & efforts to sports like baseball & basketball. Not only are those sports considered safer, but in the slight chance they make it to the pros, baseball & basketball have guaranteed contracts whereas football contracts are not guaranteed & players are finding themselves cut after an injury with nothing to fall back on. These are the biggest problems facing football & the evidence is in youth & high school football participation, not the fact that 3 teams are struggling to sell-out playoff games.

    The issue with the non-sell-outs is very simple: the weather in January in Cincinnati, Green Bay, and Indianapolis sucks. Although Indu is a dome, it is much easier to sit at home in your warm house & watch the game in 1080p HDTV. Green Bay is hosting the 49ers this weekend & game-time temps are expected to be -10 degrees. Who in the world wants to be in that weather? On the other hand, the majority of baseball games are played in nice, summer weather. There are still times where good teams struggled to sell tickets due to the weather. When the Miami (Florida) Marlins were making playoff runs they had a hard time selling tickets & a big complaint was the 90 degree, 95% humidity in South Florida in September/October. No one was saying that baseball was dying then. The true popularity of football is in the ratings. National games on Sundays on Fox double, sometimes triple, the ratings of MLB National Games on Saturdays on Fox. Additionally, national college football games that go head to head with MLB on Fox on Saturdays consistently win in the ratings war. Now, I agree that football is suffering a decline in popularity, but it is going to be a long time before baseball takes it over as top dog. It’s not going to happen in my lifetime & if it does I’d be very surprised. To get over the lull that football is in, the NFL needs to find a delicate balance between player safety & traditional football. They cannot go too far either way because if they do, the sport will be ruined. I have faith that the powers that be know what they’re doing.

    • davidbrentfan - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:01 PM

      F U C K YOU, B A S T A R D!

    • yahmule - Jan 3, 2014 at 10:48 AM

      Do what now?

  5. vincelombardisghost - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:09 PM

    Baseball = SLOW & BORING!

    • davidbrentfan - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:11 PM

      F U C K YOU, B A S T A R D!

  6. davidbrentfan - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:13 PM

    Has the small-dicked jap picther tanaka been signed yet?

    • unclemosesgreen - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:16 PM

      Inside scouting report? Were you measuring with your mouth or your hand?

      • davidbrentfan - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:18 PM

        F U C K YOU, B A S T A R D!

      • unclemosesgreen - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:22 PM

        Oh – I see, both. Good for you.

      • yahmule - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:49 PM

        He mad.

  7. hildezero - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:19 PM

    Is this journalist dumb, or what? Football may be dying, but baseball is dying more!

    • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:05 PM

      “Baseball is dying more.” In the same comment you….no, too easy, someone else take this.

      • unclemosesgreen - Jan 3, 2014 at 11:03 AM

        Mr. Mojo – take it from Mr. Mo – if you ain’t dying more, you’re dying less.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:59 PM

      Is this journalist dumb

      Who’s more dumb, the guy writing the satirical article or those who miss the obvious sarcasm?

  8. blackrubeye - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:24 PM

    Craig, I love you man, but even I think your trolling has gone a bit too far here. You cherry-picked a few random criteria like a couple small market, freezing cold cities not quite selling out enormous stadiums, but you all but ignored every other criteria which shows football is more popular than ever. TV ratings, revenues, etc. show this article to be complete bunk if it was not supposed to be a joke.

  9. brucetrimble - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:49 PM

    Too many intricate rule changes that not even the coaches, players and refs understand have made it difficult for the fan to keep up with. As a result, the poor officiating undermines and quality of the game, which in turn erodes the fan base.

    • bleedgreen - Jan 3, 2014 at 2:46 AM

      But if you read things here, baseball officiating is worse than its ever been as well. Cowboy Joe West, Angel Hernandez, Bob Davidson. Seems every week one of these guys is causing a scene and injecting himself into the game. In the NFL at least, you know the bad refs because every game is played on the same day for the most part, and you watch every single game. Every play has the ability to make or break the game and/or season of a team. In MLB, if an ump blows a game for some team, you get angry but the next day its all good. The nature of the NFL with so many playoff spots being lost to tie breakers, let alone single games, makes every game that much more important.

  10. zukny1 - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:49 PM

    To look at this from an objective point of view one has to recognize all of the variables: Football games are very costly which contributes heavily to games sometimes not selling out. The economy has a lot to do with this. Football will always fare better during good economic times. Baseball is also played during the best time of year. The time of year that I personally even enjoy going to games more.

    This article also goes on to argue the complexity of each sport and one person even called Football checkers and baseball chess. The fact is they are both very complicated sports in their own right. Assembling a team is not an easy thing to do. Each sport needs that “home run hitter” aka the queen and solid players aka “pawns.”. I personally am drawn to spring training in baseball and the draft in football because its fun to analyze and draw out possible scenarios of what the season may become. Anyone that argues one sport is more complicated than the other is not giving a fair and objective opinion.

    From my perspective Baseball is a “city” sport. When the redsox or the dodgers are in the series/playoffs I don’t care to watch. I listen or watch almost every Phillies game though throughout the season. This is probably the case for much of the fans. Where in Football MOst of the fans watch the playoffs no matter what teams are there.

    I also want to point out that this article noticeably ignored the TV ratings for both sports when comparing. I can’t give an article full credit when its written on a bias and ignores a significant portion of the equation.

    Lastly,each sport has its problems. Sometimes the problems nearly kill the sport like the steroids in the 90s for baseball. Where right now Football is facing issues with tackling and trying to make the game “safer” so many reasons why people have stopped or started to watch either game, but the point remains. Both have been here a long time and neither sport will ever fall below: Basketball hockey or soccer

    • bleedgreen - Jan 3, 2014 at 2:51 AM

      I’d argue that football is MORE of a challenging game from a strategy perspective than baseball. In the NFL, you need all 11 guys you put on the field at a given time to perform at a high level. If you have even ONE guy blow his assignment, you’re going to fail. You can’t have one guy just take the game over because, despite what people say about guys like Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson and the like ‘putting the team on their back’ to carry them to victory, if you have a single o-lineman not doing his job, or a receiver not doing his job, these guys can’t execute. In baseball, yes its a team sport, but one guy can hit 3 home runs in a game and win it all by himself. One pitcher can strike out the side and win the game. If a guy can just stand there and literally DO NOTHING and get on base, the next guy can knock a dinger and all of a sudden you’re back in the game. Basketball, and hockey are kind of the same way. They are team sports that give a single superstar player the ability to win the game, where as in football, you have teams like the Browns who had more pro-bowl players than they had wins this year.

  11. coffeypc - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:56 PM

    You’re kidding, right? Just say it, and your credibility will be restored.

    • nbjays - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:02 PM

      He’s kidding, but most people missed that completely.

  12. micknangold - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:07 PM

    Um…good joke?

  13. grnthghs - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:10 PM

    At the risk of being slammed dunked by some real thuggery on this commentary page, I think you are onto something Craig. I was an A player in all sports in my youth (now long distance runner at age 63) being an all star running back in high school and making all star every year in baseball. Having said that I lost interest in football over the years concentrating on baseball now. My rap against football remains simply that when I played the lineman were not as fast as me. Now everyone is fast or faster making the game too fast. It is ruined no finesse – quarterbacks throw the ball up in the air and hope for the best before being killed by fast lineman. What about the that throw by Manning in Superbowl XLII practically closing his eyes throwing it up for grabs with Burress catching it – what a joke! The game is ruined – too fast – and unless you were a good player like me you will never understand – so no sense bashing me unless been there and done that. Thanks Craig for at least starting the message that football is dying with baseball the better more sophisticated game. I give it 30 years (football) and gone along with the negative commentators on this page – you will be gone too as you are probably eating and drinking yourselves to death as major thugs.

  14. doctorofsmuganomics - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:19 PM

    At least we’re not soccer.

    /sips wine sagely and puffs a cigar, feet propped up on a twelve year old El Salvadorian child

  15. Stiller43 - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:20 PM

    Thanks for the stupidest article of the year.

    • doctorofsmuganomics - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:24 PM

      You’re welcome. I’ll add it onto your bill for Craig.

      Now, tell me about your childhood

  16. trefkennedy - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:22 PM

    Who wrote this? Obviously they know not what they speak of

    • doctorofsmuganomics - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:26 PM

      I’m just waiting for the next news report outing a football player as a serial killer to be leaked.

      I’ve got money on it being Aaron Rogers. he’s got the eyes

  17. commonsensefan - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:25 PM

    Convenient how this article appears after a St. Louis/Boston World Series. Too bad Tampa Bay didn’t make it…but seriously, I did a 10 second google search and found this article in Forbes.com that mentions that ALCS tickets in Detroit were still available…and this was from 3 months ago. Here’s the article http://www.forbes.com/sites/jesselawrence/2013/10/15/despite-game-3-win-dodgers-tickets-for-nlcs-are-down-55-cardinals-tickets-up-21/
    I really just think football is a much better and cheaper product on TV than baseball. Look at hockey. No one would argue that it’s not better in person than on TV. Some sports are better in person; some are not…move on. Nothing to see here people…

    • nategearhart - Jan 3, 2014 at 1:24 AM

      Turn on your sarcasm detector.

  18. 4thqtrsaint - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:38 PM

    I know there’s already over 200 comments & nobody will read this anyway, but…
    Dumbest article of the decade. Preseason football gets better ratings than world series games in baseball.
    So if football is dead, baseball is dust.

    • unclemosesgreen - Jan 3, 2014 at 11:06 AM

      Wait, you’re wrong. Twice. I read your comment, and you are dumber than dirt. But at least you’re in good company over at PFT. Dumbasses like you proliferate over there like kudzu.

  19. travy9276 - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:44 PM

    Dumbest article EVER… 30 of top 35 rated TV programs were NFL games… NFL gross revenues vs MLB gross revenues = atomic bomb vs BB gun.

  20. bigbosscrispy - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:49 PM

    Whatever, baseball will be back to worthless garbage once all the juice heads are washed out of the game. The NFL has been cleaning up the juicers for a while now, so it’s not the blood sport it used to be… Baseball taking over football in popularity? Come on man!!!

  21. doctorofsmuganomics - Jan 3, 2014 at 12:11 AM

    Well if nothing else, this proves the “98% of football fans are unable to comprehend sarcasm, or anything written over a third grade educational level”

    Also, that “185% of all internet statistics are made up.”

    • cur68 - Jan 3, 2014 at 12:21 AM

      It’s shocking the low level of reading comprehension some people have. Whole thing goes to show that Craig could write an entire post proving that Imbiciles watch football and reasoning sane people watch baseball. Even if he clearly stated that it was a joke piece, the football trolls would be on here slavering away at him thus proving the point. I’ve never seen a group of people more willing to live up to the popular belief that they are, at best, kinda dumb and, at worst, slavering morons.

      • yahmule - Jan 3, 2014 at 1:24 AM

        There are some very cerebral football sites on the internet and PFT is not one of them.

      • cur68 - Jan 3, 2014 at 1:33 AM

        The thing is that you couldn’t tell from the lot that turn up here. After attempting to read PFT comments in the long ago I came by my antipathy for football fans that you see described here. Over at PFT they all seem kind of dumb. If any clever people are found there then almost certainly you find them commenting here FAR more often. I’m sort of a casual football fan, but I have nothing to say the vast majority of the PFT types. They do tend to colour one’s opinion of football fans in general.

      • yahmule - Jan 3, 2014 at 10:16 AM

        I understand completely. Florio has concocted quite a bouillabaisse of anti-intellectualism over there. You should have read some of the comments on that place concerning CTE. I needed a shower after I was through.

        Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders are a couple sites largely devoid of mouth breathers. The advanced stats on those sites are like garlic to a vampire.

        IMO, Mike Tanier is the funniest and most versatile sportswriter working today.

        http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/66247674/

  22. Professor Fate - Jan 3, 2014 at 1:04 AM

    Pretty funny, Craig, but please don’t do it again if for no other reason than I’d rather not see comments from the mouth-breathers the NFL calls fans. There’s a very good reason I have nothing to do with PFT and you can see numerous examples in the commentary on this article.

    There is nothing more banal and boorish than narrow-minded opinions from troglodytes with no sense of humor. Why do you think so many call it the No Fun League?

  23. Bronco$32&33 - Jan 3, 2014 at 2:00 AM

    You’re a twat if you think football is losing its popularity to baseball. Baseball is stuck in the past while football looks to the future and respects the past.

    • unclemosesgreen - Jan 3, 2014 at 10:31 AM

      Now, now Jameson, what would your Mommy say to that language? Like most of the other pathetic losers here, you obviously didn’t read the article. Or if you did, you certainly didn’t understand. In your defense, there were a lot of words and you’re obviously a complete idiot, so it was a big ask for you to first read and then understand the article.

  24. watermelon1 - Jan 3, 2014 at 2:45 AM

    How soon we forget how empty Tampa Bay playoff games were….

    Miami too…

    Nice try baseball.

    How’s that regular season attendance looking for ya?

  25. propertyofthebroncos - Jan 3, 2014 at 3:38 AM

    This is a ludacris and stupid article. Football is NOT dying so forget it, baseball will never again be America’s pastime. We want bigger and better things than a sport where the athletes getting paid millions of dollars get fat and suck at the game, which by the way has the exact same top 10 count down on ESPN because there’s nothing special they can do! Ugh get off whatever drugs you are on and wake up, NFL surpassed you years ago. I used to watch the Yankees but this stuff got old. Plus this is the only article in your “hardball” talk that got a significant number of responses for one reason-you attacked the NFL. No one ever wastes their time with baseball articles, I know I used to and maybe 10 would comment? Hundreds comment on almost every single PFT article because we are passionate about the game we love! You’re a ridiculous fool.

    • doctorofsmuganomics - Jan 3, 2014 at 4:55 AM

      “We want bigger and better things than a sport where the athletes getting paid millions of dollars get fat and suck at the game”

      • yahmule - Jan 3, 2014 at 10:20 AM

        Any mockery of Albert Haynseworth must, by law, include the following clip.

        http://readandreact.net/2010/11/16/albert-haynesworth-is-completely-useless-gif/

    • cur68 - Jan 3, 2014 at 6:11 AM

      And the award for the perfect PFT jackarse; propertyofthebroncos! Give him a big round of applause, folks!

      • unclemosesgreen - Jan 3, 2014 at 7:17 AM

        I just love that he spelled ludicrous like the rap star formerly known as Chris Bridges.

        My dirty little secret is that even though I played soccer until most of me gave out, all I ever wanted to do as a kid was play football. But I washed out of PFT in approximately the same amount of time that a frog spends on a single lilly pad in transit across a pond.

      • historiophiliac - Jan 3, 2014 at 9:57 AM

        Grrr, Mo beat me to the “ludacris” thing! This is one of my favorites from my students’ essays. I’d bet you a cookie this guy is under 25. he he

    • Minoring In Baseball - Jan 3, 2014 at 6:18 AM

      You get over it. Baseball trumps football any day. It’s an intelligent fans sport, for fans who can commit to a game more than once a week. Someone earlier state that football=checkers, baseball=chess. That was well stated. I might watch a college game once in a while, but never the NFL. Total garbage. I’m not a huge fan of MLB either, but the minor leagues and college baseball are great. No sport will ever have the history of baseball, no matter what.

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