Murphy: NFL’s challenge is to keep the party going

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comFebruary 2, 2014 

As far as American secular holidays go, Super Bowl Sunday is closing on Thanksgiving and New Year's each year.

What do all three have in common?


You could add food, though I guess it depends on how much you eat on New Year's.

But Super Bowl Sunday certainly checks much of our American-ness: An over-the-top spectacle, an excuse for gluttony and beer consumption, gambling, television and commercialism.

And I love the Super Bowl. Imagine what a non-football fan would say about the entire event.

As the NFL grows ever bigger - and more popular - it does, for some at least, beg the question of how much is too much?

The NFL's answer, unsurprisingly, is never.

There is no end to how the NFL wants to dominate.

It has pushed its draft back to May to ensure that draft speculation dominates the sporting conversation for an extra month.

It is already playing regular-season games in Toronto and London, and eyeing a permanent franchise in the United Kingdom.

It is selling another package of games (on Thursday night) for network television, ensuring another huge payday and great ratings. Networks are tripping over themselves for a piece of the action.

It is considering adding an additional wild-card team in each conference, a move that would allow it to extend wild-card weekend to Monday night.

Commissioner Roger Goodell "State of the NFL" address was televised live on ESPN, just days after President Obama's "State of the Union." It was hard not to see the symbolism.

Politicians would swoon for the NFL's enduring popularity. The sport has been America's most popular for 30 consecutive years, according to the Harris Poll.

Thirty-five percent of adult sports fans consider the NFL their favorite sport, more than double Major League Baseball (14 percent) and more than triple college football (11 percent).

The NFL's trifecta of television, gambling and fantasy football - which is really just an accepted form of gambling, though Goodell worked hard to distance the two during the Q&A portion of his speech - is nearly unimpeachable.

Nothing can stop this sport, right? Just like nothing will stop Thanksgiving or New Year's. The NFL has become too big to fail with too much of corporate America and, importantly, television networks invested in its success.

But there is a reason Goodell is playing offense, trying to increase the sport's popularity at a time when the league office could be on cruise control. The seeds of pro football's demise have been sown.

They lie not with America's men - the NFL's core constituency - but with America's moms.

Notice the number of NFL apparel commercials aimed at women during a typical Sunday. Notice that Goodell sold fantasy football as a way for a father to connect with his teenage daughter.

The NFL's future rests with young women - and convincing them (or, through fandom, blinding them) that this game is safe enough for their sons to play.

That it's safe enough for them to support, no matter how many damning concussion reports emerge, no matter how many former players develop dementia or commit suicide, no matter how linked football and future health problems become.

Participation in youth football, including in the local Optimist program, is dropping. And while it hasn't affected the NFL's popularity yet, at some point it might.

It is that popularity - the NFL's status as the country's most popular sport, 30 years running - that fuels everything else, up to and including the Super Bowl.

And so, even at its unparalleled height, the NFL must be worried.

Worried that at some point Super Bowl Sunday won't be an excuse to gather with friends around a television with food and beer everywhere to enjoy the biggest event in sports.

Worried that it's spot on the holiday calender could be replaced or, worse, forgotten.

That day, I believe, is coming. Enjoy the spectacle - while it lasts.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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