While it has long been accepted that though baseball may be our
national pastime, football is our favorite sport, never has
pigskin preeminence been more evident than now, as our hideously
mesomorphic gladiators hie off to training camp again. Hardly any
other sport is prospering. Ratings for the NBA and NHL playoffs
plummeted to new lows, baseball attendance is down again, and
even hot-stuff golf only exists anymore when Tiger Woods plays
well or Annika Sorenstam plays men. Well, horse racing is making
a comeback this summer; unfortunately, this is 2003 and horse
racing is coming back to 1938.
But, ah, football is more popular than ever, truly king. The NFL
has its $18 billion TV package (over eight years) and is coming
off a season in which 90% of its games were sold out and the
Super Bowl had its usual audience that will not be exceeded until
Princess Diana is buried again. Moreover, we're only now finally
learning that the NCAA and all its other sports and conferences
are just so many incidentals. It's the NCFA. Remember when the
Atlantic Coast Conference was supposed to be about basketball?
Even Donna Shalala is in shoulder pads now.
So apart from the obvious, that we violent Americans just plain
like smashmouth, how do we explain football's power and
popularity--especially in an economic time when so many other
sports (including soccer abroad) are losing paying customers, TV
eyeballs, money and glamour?
The old real estate saw about location, location, location
applies here, except that what matters is schedule, schedule,
schedule. Every other sport (save one; we'll get to that) has
games that go on all week long. Football teams play once a week,
on the weekend. The games in other sports blur. If it's Tuesday,
it must be Dick Vitale. To hell with thinking outside the box.
Football is very boxy. It always gives us just one game per team
a week, which we can look forward to and analyze and, yes, even
better, commit to with a wager. The games are discrete. We get up
for them. We're all experts. The game-a-week setup is good for
The only other major sport that's on the uptick is NASCAR. And
isn't it interesting that NASCAR's schedule is basically like
football's: relatively few competitions, neatly scheduled, all on
weekends. Also, nobody dominates NASCAR. NFL parity might be
boring, but parity pays. The amazing thing, too, is that while
NFL socialism so obviously works best for everyone, it really
doesn't exist anywhere else in the sports world. Just as only a
few teams have much chance in the major leagues and the NBA, so
is it pretty much that way elsewhere: Manchester United and Real
Madrid and Juventus and the Yomiuri Giants are the over and
everybody else is the under. Parity is good for betting too.
Also, football has the right season. The baseball poets all
rhapsodize about their game melding with the calendar, blooming
in spring, tra la. Yeah, but football starts when the real year
begins, after vacations, when school opens and families settle
down to eat fatty foods and watch TV. The season climaxes at the
gloomiest, coldest time of the year, when television is most
seductive. Football doesn't even need to play games in our
second-largest city. TV trumps L.A. Having everyone around the
tube is good for betting too.
Finally, maybe these times are most in tune with football. At a
time when the United States is arrogant, unilateral and insular,
baseball can have all its Latins and Asians, and basketball can
have all its Croats and Lithuanians, but football is still ours,
100% pure 'Mercan. It's ironic. Although George W. Bush is of
baseball, he operates with none of the patient rhythms of the
sport but simply charges ahead. He is perhaps the most
un-baseball president since the unrepentant Teddy Roosevelt, who
declared: "In life, as in a football game...hit the line hard."
Bring it on.
Also, football is best for betting.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER
"Tanner lives in Germany, where he relocated in the wake of
warrants for his arrest."--OUT OF ACES, PAGE 20