Why the NFL’s Popularity May Be at Risk of a Collapse

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A lot has been made of the dangers of football lately. There has been article after article about the lengths athletes go to just to return to action – despite the long-term damage they know is being inflicted on their bodies. I mentioned it in passing in last week’s post, but I heard an interview that got me thinking again.

Recently, I listened to a BS Report podcast where host Bill Simmons, one of the most popular active sportswriters, talked with fellow writer, Chuck Klosterman, about – among other things – the future of football.

This conversation reminded me of boxing. There was a time when the Heavyweight champion of the world was a household name. Now there are like 17 champions, and hardly anyone can name 10 active boxers. The sport has taken a decided step back in the sports landscape.

Where there used to be weekly boxing matches on television, there are now a few marquee Pay-per-View matches per year. Where “Championship Boxer” was a dream for our nation’s best athletes, only a select few teenagers now even consider becoming professional boxers.

So what happened?

This is not an easy answer. Boxing has had a variety of issues in America over the past few decades: A growth of agencies/associations created multiple “champions,” making individual championships worth less. The sport became more international, and boxers who were not recognizable American stars became the norm. Corruption from promoters, agencies, and (allegedly) scorekeepers stripped legitimacy over time. Benny Paret died 10 days after losing a brutal fight broadcast on ABC. kidparet[1]

I believe another major factor was the “Muhammad Ali Effect” hinted at by Simmons on his podcast. While the Paret death was a shock, watching Ali transform from a vibrant, outspoken champion into a quivering shell of himself is a reminder of the perils of boxing. There is no way to plausibly deny the negative effects that boxing can have on your long-term health. There is too much information. Young athletes who felt they had an outlet other than boxing began to choose it. This dried up the pipeline of talent at the same time viewers were becoming turned off to the sport for all of the reasons above.

In the same way, the highly publicized suicides of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, coupled with the research showing the negative effects of football on brain function later in life make me believe the same could happen to football in America. There is concrete, scientific evidence, and the rapid deterioration of sports stars whose athletic prowess we marveled at a short time ago in the media. Football is by far the most popular sport in America, but I see it now as a surging market headed for collapse (like the Housing Bubble), rather than a movement that will continue gathering steam. Here’s why:

Information on concussions makes us watch differently –

I don’t know about you, but watching football’s big hits in 2013 is different than 2003.

This hit happened a couple weeks ago. A younger Joe would leap off the couch and look forward to the replay on Sportscenter. 2013 Joe recoiled and shook his head at the mosh pit that formed a couple feet away from the passed-out Stevan Ridley. I now know that Ridley is concussed, that he is more likely to be concussed again in the future, and that there’s a greater chance that he will suffer from Early Onset Dementia. That’s a complete 180 compared to just a few years ago. Having information made my viewing experience different.

That difference should matter to the NFL. It is a company whose product is entertainment. What happens when these hits are no longer entertaining for people? And what happens when more athletes (and their parents) realize that it could happen to them? That leads to the second point:

Fewer people will want to play football –

…which is a major issue for boxing today. President Obama said recently that he’d have to think before allowing his son to play football. This won’t directly affect the number of football playing youths since he only has daughters, but this is a sentiment shared by many. There are thousands of parents and soon-to-be parents whose mission is to keep their children safe. Football is a character-building outlet that can also keep kids active and in shape. As time passes it could come to be known as a risky sport that subjects kids to higher risk of debilitating brain disease. The President’s quote signals that this shift is already occurring.

Please understand that I do not think football will go away forever. It’s such an ingrained part of southern culture, as one example, that I’d never suggest the sport will be erased. But, like boxing, I think the sport’s current path is one that should have the NFL office very nervous. People will always watch the Super Bowl – just like they’d order Mayweather/Pacquiao today if they made it happen – even if the overall health of the league is suffering. The problems on the horizon are the willingness of viewers to continue watching their sports heroes suffer the effects of brain damage and the willingness of parents to submit their children to that risk.

Where do you stand, SBM Football Fans? Has the increase in information about what’s happening to these players changed your viewing experience? Would anything sway you? Has the NFL done enough to promote safety in your opinion?

This is a complicated issue, but I’m interested in your take. Hit the comments below!

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  • AfterMath

    For the reasons you posted, I think its on its last legs. I don't think the death will be as quick as boxing. The problem is that there's nothing to replace for football. People can say basketball or <insert sport here>, but nothing else offers the same release of aggression like football. Maybe hockey, but until that sport is American I can't really see it as a major competitor.

    But what I think will be the ultimate demise of football isn't the violence, its going to be the NFL trying to save itself from the violence. They can see the signs you speak of as well as the lawsuits they're getting from ex players and outside organizations. So their response is to make the game watered down. Basically in 20 years you'll have a no contact version of football that basically amounts to televised flag football. And the question becomes will the people accept it. Maybe if it were a new product, but if we're saying that there can never be another LT or Joe Greene or Ray Lewis or Refridgerator Perry, Dexter Manley, etc., then you're losing a large part of what made the league special. And I just don't see how it can survive.

    That being said, there's nothing to take its place, so as long as the time slot for 1:00 Sunday is open, there's a chance. And until another sport comes along that allows for such a diverse set of players to all be on the playing field at the same time, I don't see the athletes leaving football like they did boxing. Until they do, we'll just be watching a watered down product.
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  • Peter Parker

    I don't think America's sport is going anywhere. We love it, always will love it, and it has a place in every American's lives. I think as more and more research is done, better equipment will allow players to better protect themselves (just think about Under Armour and how they have revolutionize clothing/equipment). I do think it will become a little watered down over the next few years, but when you have a cash cow such as football, I just don't see it going anywhere.

    • Joe Sargent

      I agree that it will always be there in some form. I just think it the NFL gets to where boxing is now, that'd be a huge dropoff, and one they could predict and avoid. As I mentioned below, I have doubts about a watered down product continuing the success of the current NFL.

  • http://www.singleblackmale.org/author/wisdomismisery/ WisdomIsMisery

    Similar to the comments above, I think the NFL will continue to water itself down but I don’t see it going away. I actually one of the major factors contributing to the decline of boxing is the corruption and scandals that have been ingrained in the sport almost since inception – the fixed fights, janky promoters, and the blatant use of steroids among other substances. Further, unlike boxing, a number of key contenders in the NFL can still make millions and millions of dollars; whereas, in boxing unless you’re a Mayweather/Pacquaio or some other top contender or someone getting beat up by a top contender you’re broke and not going to make much money. I think those two factors, among others – like popularity – are significant enough to separate the fate of the two sports. Lastly, the NFL has a lot more options to diversify itself than boxing. With boxing, there will always be two people violently punching each other in the head for 10 – 15 rounds. In the NFL, as they’ve done over the years, they can continue to diversify the rules and gear to make the sport “safer” – although they’re will always be an inherent level of violence, which quite frankly some fans will continue to enjoy and watch too.

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    • Joe Sargent

      I wonder if there's a balance between the 'watered down' product and football that everyone will still want to watch. I think we can agree that the Pro Bowl is the epitomy of watered down football…and that's terrible. They can't go that far, but I do wonder how close you can get before people just check out.

      I agree that boxing had its own issues that contributed to where it is now. But expounding on the Ali point…what effect do you think it would have if Ray Lewis became what Ali is now? Anything? I think with the information we have, people would link the inherent violence of the sport and the physical/mental breakdown of the sports great athletes.

      • WisdomIsMisery

        Good point about the Super Bowl. But look at arena football, it has it's fans. Even lingerie football has it's fans – lol but perhaps that's a different issue. I see what you're saying, can it continue as a billion dollar empire? I'm not sure.

        Re: the Ali effect… Sadly, but honestly, I think it's easy for people to ignore the minority. People still watch boxing, a violent sport, albeit not as much as they used to. There will always be hardcore boxing fans for as long as it exist – the growing popularity of MMA as a spin-off of boxing is an example of this. However, I think if Ali became the norm, then and only then would people take notice. There are already "Ali" -like football players out there suffering from dimenstia and other ailments and people largely overlook it for the greater good.

        Further, we haven't even covered the steroid issue underlying much of football – I'm surprised there hasn't been a steroid era scandal for football, yet. I think that's more a reflection of them keeping quiet than it not existing. I'm 5'10 and I have a lot of 5'10 friends, but very few of them are 200 – 250lbs; whereas in the NFL, you have guys who are 5'5 250lbs like it's just the thing to do. I recall a dude that played for A&M (forgot his name); played for the Cowboys for a couple seasons then dropped out of the league and lost 50lbs. That's simply not natural…that's some Barry Bonds type weight loss lol Andrian Peterson tears every imaginable muscle in existence in his knee and he rushes for 2,000 yards the next season; Terrell Owens BROKE HIS LEG, and played in a game like 6 – 8 weeks later; Ray Lewis SEVERS HIS TENDON and plays in the Super Bowl??? The list goes on and on. I think we're turning a blind eye to a number of issues, the Ali-effect notwithstanding, so I think football will keep right on going, but time will tell. If a majority of players start keeling over in their 30s or continue committing suicides in mass, then people will finally pay attention, until then….

        I can't call it.

  • fourpageletter

    i am a football girl. i come from a football family.
    that being said, i will NOT put my son in the sport for many of the reasons as stated above.
    i too watch hits differently ( i always cringed, but now pause a lot longer).
    as long as you guys have a state called Texas… football isn't going anywhere any time soon.
    let's revisit this in 10 years. ;)
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  • http://abigbuttandasmile.com A Big Butt and Smile

    Football is going the way of the Tobacco industry and Boxing.

    And like the Tobacco industry and boxing it will take awhile.

    I'm a diehard football fan. Born and raised in the south where God and football reign supreme on Sundays. With that said, if I have a son he will NOT play football. You asked me this question a few years ago my answer would have been different.

    It will take awhile – but between the lawsuits, parents not allowing their kids to play, the suicides and Ali type of players then end of the NFL is coming to an end. At least how we currently know it.
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  • rufus dufus

    You could always try rugby 80 minutes of action, not 18 plus full unprotected body contact… wusses!!