Super Bowl 2011: When Will the Football Bubble Burst?

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.

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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.