Super Bowl 2011: When Will the Football Bubble Burst?

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Cometh the Super Bowl, cometh the latest poll asking Americans to identify their favorite sport. According to a Harris Interactive Poll released in late January, "Three in ten Americans who follow at least one sport (31%) say professional football is their favorite sport while 17% say baseball." The results are consistent with the long-term trend in the sports' relative popularity. As Harris notes, "Since this question was first asked in 1985, professional football has gone up 7 points from 24% of sports fans saying it was their favorite sport then to 31% saying so now. Baseball, on the other hand, has gone down 6 points from 23% in 1985 to 17% today." And once the additional 12 percent of fans who opt for college football as their sport of choice are included in the football tally, the putative "national pastime" is anything but.

Perhaps nothing better reveals the growing football-baseball gap, than comparing television ratings for each sport's marquee event over time, a test that mitigates the bias that might be attributed to a poll taken during the winter rather than the summer. Charting the ratings for the Super Bowl against those for the World Series since 1968 (the second year of the Super Bowl and the first year I could find for the World Series) amply confirms what people have been telling the pollsters over the past several decades.

Super Bowl- World Series TV Ratings.jpg

The bottom line: 106.5 million viewers watched last year's Super Bowl, a record high for a television program. The television audience for the 2010 World Series, on the other hand, averaged 14.3 million per game.

Given pro football's firm hold on the nation's sporting passions, it can be difficult to recall that when the Super Bowl was first conceived, Sports Illustrated's long-time pro football correspondent Tex Maule worried:

Will increasing television exposure, the voracious demand for talent as the league's expand and pro football's aggressive hunt for still more revenue endanger the future of the game?... There is as yet no indication that the public has had a surfeit of pro football, although it is heavily televised from late summer until mid-January. But the TV industry is pressing for still more—more games per season and more commercials per game. Other sports—notably baseball and boxing—were wounded by unlimited television. Pro football still seems to be some distance from the saturation point, but the warning signals are there.

Maule, a fierce partisan of the National Football League's superiority over the upstarts from the American Football League, is sometimes remembered for dismissing the chances of the New York Jets against the NFL champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III—a game that the Jets ended up winning, 16-7. He wrote, "Las Vegas bookmakers, a group not known for emotional display, figure the Colts to be 17 points better than the Jets, which is probably conservative."

But as Super Bowl XLV kicks off, with professional football going from strength to strength, with ever-increasing exposure on television and in pop culture generally (HBO's Hard Knocks, any one?), expansion to an 18-game season in the works, and no "warning sign" of a "saturation point" in evidence, it turns out that picking the Colts to wallop the Jets in January 1969 was not Maule's most dubious call after all.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.
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