The advent of fall carries with it a fairly newborn American tradition at the peak of its popularity: professional football. Compared to most cultural traditions, which are established over decades if not centuries, football has entrenched itself in American culture faster, and with a larger presence, than any other contemporary national tradition.
In the last 25 years, NFL viewership has more than doubled. Last year’s Super Bowl attracted 106.5 million viewers, beating the MAS*H finale record of 105.97 million. Television networks are savvy to the demand. In 1989, at the height of the Joe Montana era when pro football had already established itself as the most popular American sport, TV networks paid a combined $473 million per year to air NFL games. The next year, in 1990, that amount nearly doubled to a whopping $900 million per year. Today, five networks are contracted to pay a combined total of $3.085 billion per year to air a sports league whose teams play once a week for five months out of the year. This is anything but ordinary.
Typically, when a cultural institution is as dominant as the NFL, the masses begin to loathe the institution for its monopoly. But with the NFL, public opinion has largely abstained from railing against this behemoth business. On the contrary, our culture tends to marvel at the NFL’s success. America is rooting for a major corporation.
Collectively, our interest has not waned, our wallets have remained opened (despite stark economic realities), and Americans’ schedules continue to give priority to this national pastime. But why? What sets the NFL apart in its popularity? The answer is something remarkably simple: the product values place.
It might seem obvious to say that local sports teams rely on the locale in which they play, but the NFL in particular has adhered to a community-centered ideology by setting out to not just create entertainment, but to establish tradition. Sports organizations seek to create a consumer who holds not just an allegiance to their sport, but an allegiance to an individual entity within that sport; an allegiance to a single team. It could be said that identifying allegiances is not dissimilar to identifying values, in which case the NFL has identified and chosen to invest in an inherent societal good. More than time and money, people value Home.
For an increasingly transient society, the idea of Home is one thing we will always long for and identify with. Where-somebody-is-from will always be a determining factor in how we think of them. Place isn’t fleeting. Place is resilient and hard to destroy (in some instances, attempts at destruction solidify an even stronger sense of identity for that place. See the recent Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints). Even in a global culture, place remains a constant and a necessity.
What sports teach us is that if a cultural institution serves to advance the powerful constant of place, tradition is born and that institution thrives, but the NFL has taken this a step further.
It is worth noting that NFL teams play approximately 1/5 of the number of games that NBA teams play, and 1/10 of what MLB teams play, yet pro football still has the highest revenue. One could point to parity, salary caps, or athleticism as the leading cause for the NFL’s success, but all those elements are merely results of the true outlier. That is that pro football has attained its “hometown tradition” status through a consistent commodification of Sundays.
By reserving its tradition to occur on one already communally-oriented day of the week – the only day of the week our society reserves for home-life and not work-life – NFL games have become more than entertainment. They are now events. With events comes nostalgia, and only with nostalgia can traditions be instilled.
By establishing a Sunday ritual that fits into the existing cultural fabric, pro football transcended the typical bounds of sport, leisure, and entertainment. It became a people’s game, a new national tradition that borrowed from the historical southern tradition of SEC football. Here, cultural capital was attained and the NFL entrenched itself in the lives of Americans. But has pro football lost sight of its community-oriented roots? Has it gotten too big for its own good?
Over the last twenty years, the tradition of Sunday football has slowly crept into the rest of our week with games now occurring on Monday and Thursday nights. Fantasy football has controversially shifted fan values to the individual player. The NFL has its own TV network and a 24-hour news cycle. We are inundated with everything from updates on a quarterback’s pinkie finger, to the circus-like annual tradition of “Favre Watch.” As a whole, we’ve bit on their unashamedly explicit branding.
The power of greed, some argue, has spun the league out of control and into a less upright sport. Following the upcoming season, the NFL must face a few ugly hurdles that threaten to compromise the integrity of the league; namely the very grim reality that pro football might not exist in 2011. Disputes about length of season, concussions, and most of all, player salary, are running out of time to be resolved. Without a CBA negotiation that pleases both owners and players, pro football could turn into an uncapped league and go the way of Major League Baseball. In this situation, teams like the Cowboys and Redskins (the league’s most lucrative clubs) would become the football equivalent of the rich and famous New York Yankees, and all parity would likely be lost.
However, despite these challenges and forewarnings, NFL fans have shown that the bedrock of community and Home still trumps the individual player. The majority of fans still value home teams over individual superstar athletes. Teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers boast the most dedicated fan base in the league and yet had one of the league’s smallest operating incomes of 2008 at $14.4M, compared to the Washington Redskins’ $58M.
In 2008 Luke Russert wrote an op-ed piece for ESPN Magazine that outlined how the NFL can sustain fan interest by holding to its community emphasis, highlighting the preservation of the crisis-bound Buffalo Bills as a potentially pivotal move.
The league should man-up and give Buffalo fans a stake in the team, like in Green Bay. Under the Packers model (formed in 1923), 112,088 fans hold more than four million voting shares in the team, having paid from $5 (offered in 1923) to $200 (1998) per share. There’s no owner to pocket the profits, just an advisory group of fans to make sure every penny is reinvested in the team. The benefits are huge. In financial straits and need cash? A fan-owned team can sell more shares. Need pols to approve a new stadium? Your franchise is co-owned by voters. If Buffalonians are given a stake in their team, I’ll wager . . . that the Bills open the 2015 season in new digs on the shores of Lake Erie. Hello, revenue!
The proposition isn’t as easy and foolproof as it sounds. There are many hurdles in taking the sport public (a 1961 ban on public ownership being the primary one, which could be overturned only through an owners agreement) and some argue private ownership is what brought the league into prominence in the first place. But Russert has NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on his side. “[Fan ownership provides] . . . a great bond with the community, something we’re trying to achieve,” said Goodell. Look no further than the faithful cheeseheads of Green Bay to see that it’s also good for the brand.
Teams like the Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, and Pittsburgh Steelers remind us that community ultimately trumps cash, and leads to larger profit margins in the long run. Total public ownership is probably too drastic a measure, but the attitude behind democratizing the sport is compelling to say the least.
As the NFL has proven over the last 25 years, working to advance community is not only an upright investment, it’s also a lucrative one. For the ultimate team sport, the NFL must wisely abide by its original principles if it is to sustain growth. Otherwise, 50 years from now NFL stadiums might look more like abandoned malls than cultural landmarks.