Football leaving baseball in the dust

Baseball is still called the national pastime, but football is by far the more popular sport in American society.

Originally Published: February 10, 2004
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

More out of habit than anything else, we still refer to baseball as the national pastime.

In truth, the tag hasn't fit for some time. Football began making inroads as far back as the 1970s, and two decades later, it wasn't much of a contest anymore. If baseball still had the hearts and minds of the American sports fan, then football could lay claim to everything else.

By any measure -- TV viewership, merchandise sold, fan surveys -- football rules. The game may not be superior, but it undeniably is more popular.

Some of that is baseball's fault; some of it is not. A look at what switched America's sports pecking order around.

Kris Jenkins
A contact sport like the NFL is most appealing to the American public.

1. TV
If ever a sport seemed made for television, it's football. Neatly packaged into three-hour programming blocks, it provides networks with dependable programming.

What's more, it's as if football moves across the screen, as though developed by a TV executive. While baseball features a one-on-one matchup who stand 60 feet apart from one another, football involves 22 players, all of whom are lined up in an area far more compact.

At the snap of the ball, all but a handful of players are within camera view. In baseball, the opposite is true.

Football's unique setup allows each game to (potentially) be a national telecast. With baseball, it's a hodgepodge lineup with an array of local broadcast options.

Baseball's Game of the Week takes place on warm summer afternoons when people are at the beach, the mountains or amusement parks. Football's national telecasts take place in the late fall and winter, when inclement weather in many parts of the country forces people inside to gather around the electronic hearth.

2. Violence
Football is chartitably called a contact sport. In actuality, it's a collision sport. You can watch a nine-inning baseball game and never see two players come in physical contact with one another.

Not so with football, which guarantees high-speed crashes between players of ever-increasing size and strength on every play.

The more fierce the collision, the better. And once again, TV helps out here, zooming in on these crashes and showing them in slow motion, giving them the look of a stylized ballet.

A very, very violent stylized ballet, that is.

3. Gambling
Football easily lends itself to wagering. Team A is favored by three points over Team B. Pick one and watch your investment play out for the next several hours.

Ever try to decipher baseball odds? There's something in there about one team being plus-130, and the other being a minus-120. You need a degree in calculus to make sense of it all.

Meanwhile, tens of millions watch an otherwise uninteresting Monday Night Football matchup to the very end because they've got the under, or they've picked the team with the nice blue uniforms in the office pool.

The league -- unofficially of course -- helps sanction this interest. While baseball investigates Pete Rose to the ends of the earth, football demands that its teams compile a full and accurate injury report by mid-week.

For the, um, fans.

4. Attention span
Colletively, we don't have one. Not a very long one, anyway, and it's baseball's bad fortune to demand focus and involvement.

Adrian Beltre
The Dodgers got a huge upgrade at third with Adrian Beltre having a breakout season.

Not so with football. A play is run, a replay or three is shown, and before you know, the offense is breaking from the huddle. And never mind that studies have shown that there's actually about 10 minutes worth of action in a given NFL game.

Thanks to TV, it sure seems more.

Baseball, meanwhile, is languid and leisurely. A single at-bat, producing no more than foul balls, can last for several minutes. To the hard-core fan, this can be fascinating and provide time for conversation and analysis.

For too many others, however, it makes baseball d-u-l-l.

For a culture accustomed to the quick-cut edits of MTV and instand satisfaction, baseball is hopelessly out-of-date.

The fact that football is generally played one day a week -- while every baseball team plays every day for six months -- is another point in the NFL's favor.

It's a serious investment of one's time to watch a team for 162 games. Not so with football, whose 16-game schedule better suits the busy lifestyle.

5. Labor peace
Football has it. Baseball can only dream of it.

The last work stoppage in football came in 1987, almost a generation ago, and lasted only a few games. The last baseball stoppage came in 1994 and wiped out half the season, the World Series, and part of the next spring training.

Only 18 months ago, baseball stood on the brink of another disaster, and though it was averted at the 11th hour, the mere possibility of another stoppage did some damage.

It's a perverse dictum, but as a general rule, the weaker the union in a particular sport, the more popular the game seems to be with the American public.

That's bad news for baseball -- whose Players Association is mighty and nearly undefeated in the legal arena -- and good news for the NFL, which runs roughshod over its Players Association.

6. Socialism
Forty-something years ago, former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had the brilliant business sense to determine that what was good for one team was good for all. Revenue sharing has made it possible for a team in Green Bay to compete on equal footing with two teams in New York and other large cities.

Not so in baseball, where it's every club for itself. Parity has improved in baseball, and likely will continue to do so under the current collective bargaining agreement. But beyond poor management in Phoenix -- and until recently in Cincinnati -- NFL fans don't feel disenfranchised.

Try telling that to baseball fans in small-market cities likes Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and others.

None of which is to suggest that baseball has completely lost its hold on the sporting public. It's still the game that more people attend in person than any other. It's mid-season exhibition game draws more viewers to TV than any other during the summer months. And it's important grab on the American psyche was never more apparent than in the days and weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But baseball has ceded its title of American pastime, and more than likely, it's not going to get it back anytime soon.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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