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Leigh Steinberg

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NFL is the New National Pastime

Posted: 09/17/2012 7:06 pm

When I was a child growing up in the 1950s, Major League Baseball was the national pastime. Baseball dominated television and radio sports coverage and was the number one emphasis of sports pages. When the Dodgers won the World Series in 1959, the games were played in the day and a television was wheeled into my elementary school classroom so we could watch every minute.

It was possible to drive down our Los Angeles street on a Saturday afternoon and hear continuous radio coverage of Dodger games with Vin Scully's voice booming from every transistor radios in each front yard. When the Angels came two years later we were obsessed with Bo Belinsky, Dean Chance and Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner. Most boys life centered around baseball. When we weren't playing it, we were collecting and trading baseball cards and inserting them into the spokes of our bikes to make prodigious amounts of noise. We grew up dreaming that we could pitch like Sandy Koufax, hit home runs like Willie Mays or steal bases like Maury Wills. Most kids grew up dreaming about a chance to play in the Major Leagues. We took our baseball gloves to the games in hopes of catching a foul ball -- I caught my first in the now non-existent Wrigley Field in Los Angeles at an Angels-White Sox game.

The extraordinary shift in sports priorities is confirmed by the television Nielsen ratings released this week for September 3-9. The NBC coverage of last week's Steeler-Bronco game had 27.5 million viewers and was the top-rated show among 80 entertainment options. The second-rated show was NBC coverage of the Cowboy-Giant Wednesday night game with almost 24 million viewers. The third-rated show was NBC's Sunday Pregame show with an audience of 20 million. The fourth-rated show was NBC's Pregame show preceding the Wednesday night football with almost 19 million viewers. Rounding out the top five was Football Night in America with 13 million viewers. The number seventh-rated show was NFL Opening Kickoff with an audience of 10 million. That means the top five shows and six of the top seven were all NBC football-related.

By comparison, top rated shows such as America's Got Talent, and Two and a Half Men had nine and six million viewers, respectively. When six of the top seven rated entertainment options on television -- matched against the best entertainment that the 300 stations and cable options that Hollywood and other sports have to offer -- are NFL games or pre-games, something fundamental has shifted in America.

How did this dramatic shift occur? Television and the NFL evolved together since the 60s into a marriage made in heaven. The multiple cameras, sound, highlights, instant replay, slow motion and other novel production techniques used in NFL coverage captivated a large audience. NFL Films, led by the combined genius of Ed and Steve Sabol innovated the combination of music and highlights. This became the norm on local news and ESPN. DirecTV enables viewers to watch all the Sunday games, with compelling features that allow the audience to move from highlight to highlight. The NFL Network features a variety of NFL content. High definition television delivers a vastly enhanced picture bringing the viewer right into the action. The expansion of cable and satellite has resulted in much more football oriented programming, including highlight shows, commentary shows and features.

Big screen television, cellphones, computers, texting, YouTube and tablets have given new generations the ability to multi-task and control short bursts of stimulating content. Constant shifting between these stimuli produces an Attentive Deficit Disorder-mentality and destroys patience. The desire for action and contact in tight packages alters attention span. A sport like baseball has slower rhythms. It is an experience passed down from fathers to sons which needs history and statistics to be fully enjoyed. The more leisurely pace of baseball still has millions of dedicated fans, but the NFL has passed it by.

NFL football is an "event sport" played once a week. There is a weekly pre-game anticipation and buildup and post-game analysis. Every game matters and may be critical in the race to the Super Bowl. American appetite for violent, collision-filled action has increased. The NFL features bigger, stronger, faster bodies which produce an exponentially more impactful "physics of the hit" that is increasingly dramatic. NFL football has become a non-lethal substitute for war, only less lethal. It harkens back to the days of gladiators. The game has changed offensive dynamics. "Three yards and a cloud of dust" has been replaced with a nonstop passing attack. Taller, fast receivers are matched up against defensive backs who are hampered by rule changes that give them a competitive disadvantage in coverage. This results in more scoring and exciting plays.

The NFL has had the leadership and vision of promotion oriented Commissioners, from Pete Rozelle, to Paul Taglibue to Roger Goodell. Continuous labor peace and long-term collective bargaining agreements have assured fans that games would be played and are not overshadowed by labor strife. Owners like the Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the Patriots' Bob Kraft have pushed the cutting edge of creative branding. NFL Properties and Player's Inc. have been aggressive in marketing. Vast NFL and team apparel and memorabilia are omnipresent, Tailgating, sports bars, luxury boxes, premiere seating, naming rights, cheerleaders and team logo'd credit cars have driven the experience. Millions of fans play Fantasy Football on a weekly basis giving them a special rooting interest. Gamblers and the ubiquitous office game pools heighten focus. Talk radio and the internet provide endless commentary and reports.

This country has morphed into NFL madness. The second most popular sport in most reader polls is... wait for it... college football. And following the collegiate players elevation to the pros -- highlighted by massive amounts of draft coverage -- amplifies the effect. From two weeks of Super Bowl coverage, to free agency, to the draft, NFL football has found a way to dominate the news year round. While Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL were in-season and vying for fan interest last spring, "Bountygate" and the free-agency search of Peyton Manning were hot national stories. To gauge the evolution of American culture and tastes, simply trace the substitution of the public's love affair with the more textured, pastoral game of baseball by the current obsession with the faster-paced, more violent National Football League.

 
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