For the last several years it’s been neither novel nor subversive to suggest that football has replaced baseball as the national pastime. What’s more interesting is the popularity gap that’s developing between the NFL and, well, everything else. I recently had lunch with a prominent sports editor, and he opined that forthcoming coverage in the mainstream sports media is going to reflect this divide: “There’s the NFL,” he said, “and all the other sports occupy lower tiers.”
I think he’s right. To cite but one example, this summer the Green Bay Packers in a span of three hours sold 60,000 tickets…to an intra-team scrimmage. Excitement is percolating, even surrounding teams as hopeless and hapless as the Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers. As someone who thinks baseball is not only the greatest sport, but also the greatest cultural endeavor in the history of ever, you can color me confused.
When explaining the surging popularity of the NFL among hoi polloi, observers will point variously to the league’s seeming parity (though that parity is widely misunderstood), the prominence of fantasy football or our psychic need as a people for forms of sanctioned aggression. I’m more inclined to place stock in the former two explanations (since the sociological navel-gazing that spawns the latter can often lead one to participate in a Robert Bly-led nude drum circle in the woods), but who can say for sure?
In any event, I know this: it’s a good thing the NFL draws only a small percentage of its revenues from ticket sales. This is a function of the schedule–the NFL plays less than a tenth of the games MLB plays–but it’s also a happy construct for the league. That’s because going to an NFL game, in terms of return on the entertainment dollar, is the depth and breadth of lousiness.
I recently attended my first NFL game in about 15 years. Granted, it was a listless preseason encounter between the Bears and Bills (the NFL equivalent of a Tucker Carlson-versus-Dave Gahan Krav Maga showdown), but nothing could’ve salvaged the evening. The face price of our awful Section-430 tickets was $55, an unfathomably high price for what seemed to be a parade of fumbled snaps, motion penalties and TV timeouts viewed from a veritable aerie of a seat.
Then there’s the aesthetics of the new Soldier Field, putatively one of the league’s jewels. I don’t know precisely what to liken it to, but a giant, aluminum gravy boat sounds as fitting as anything. It’s antiseptic, unremittingly loud, lumbering and curiously light on urinals. And unlike, say, Wrigley or U.S. Cellular, it’s ridiculously inaccessible if you don’t own a car. This is to say nothing of the challenges and annoyances of disembarking among 70,000 rather than 35,000.
As for the game itself, it’s hard to overstate just how little action occurs in an NFL game. It’s often bandied about that your average game contains something like 12 minutes of snap-to-whistle football. In the age of TiVo, we sometimes forget this. In person, it’s excruciatingly apparent. You’ve no doubt watched a game on TV and sat bewildered before a sequence that goes something like this: third down off-tackle, time out for measurement, commercial break, line up for field goal, time out by defensive team to “ice” the kicker, commercial break, made field goal, commercial break, kickoff, commercial break, first down dive play for two yards. For $55, this mind-numbing tedium can be experienced in person, except under these circumstances you can’t check your e-mail, run to the can, grab a beer from the fridge, feed your dog or flip to another channel.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying: I can’t begin to fathom how any football fan can say baseball is boring. In baseball, we have more action, no halftime, an infinitely better in-person experience, cheaper tickets, prettier girls and better weather. It’s often said that football is made for TV. In my mind, that has more to do with the fact that it’s a crashing bore from the stands than it does with any native telegenic merits. Whatever the case, most of America disagrees with me.
It won’t surprise me if these cultural drifts continue and baseball’s status slips even further. But I still won’t get it. It’s onerous to inveigh against cultural decline and not sound like a colossal blowhard. After all, there’s no accounting for tastes. Nevertheless…Hilary Duff has the number-one album in the country, and it’s a greatest hits album. In a related matter, the NFL is more popular than MLB and will remain so probably until the mountains crumble into the sea.
It’s worth pointing out that I actually like football. I play in a fantasy league, and I genuinely enjoy whiling away fall weekends in front of the tube. While I certainly prefer college football to the pros (USC over LSU in the Rose Bowl), I do follow the NFL from a modest remove. I’m still perplexed by the league’s surpassing popularity, and I’m even more perplexed by the perception at large that baseball is somehow the dullest of the big three sports. All of you who feel this way, I challenge you to pony up for an NFL ticket, drink deep of the experience and tell me it isn’t a bit like a treadmill session–palatable only with an iPod or stack of magazines in tow.
I just received word that my parents’ home in Gulfport, Mississippi, the house I grew up in, was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Thankfully, my near and dear are safe and unharmed, but a lot of good people on the Gulf Coast have an arduous time ahead of them. The folks down there are a tough, flinty lot; they’ll make it just fine.
As is the case with all natural calamities, it’s the poor, the infirm and the uninsured who will bear the brunt, so I hope you’ll consider joining me in making a donation to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. If you have friends and family in the region, they have my sincerest prayers and hopes. I ask the same of you for mine.