In 1908, the most popular athlete in America was a wrestler from Humboldt, Iowa, named Frank Gotch. Teddy Roosevelt hosted him. Toys and buildings and farm implements were named after him. Bert McGrane, one of the nation’s best-known sportswriters, wrote, “The sports world never has known his equal.”
Just the same, I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Frank Gotch.
Mark Cuban would have you believe that, one day, the same might be said of Peyton Manning.
Cuban predicted in the halcyon days of 2014 that the NFL was “10 years away from an implosion,” and this week he confirmed that his prognostications are right on target.
Here’s another prediction: The NFL will not only be alive and doing just fine in 2024, it’ll still be the No. 1 sport in America.
No, its ratings won’t be as good. Participation will continue to decline, and CTE problems won’t be resolved, either. These are legitimate concerns. Health issues, in particular, will continue to be a topic in this corner of your sports section.
Even so, the NFL will still lead all pro sports in TV ratings, and there will still be enough talent to stock NFL rosters.
Most of the commentary on the NFL’s fading popularity is driven by declining TV ratings. Readers tell me all the time that, because of the anthem controversy, they’ve sworn off the NFL. And that’s no doubt a contributing factor.
Still, ratings were in decline before Colin Kaepernick took a knee. The issues are over-saturation, namely, idiotic ideas like games on Thursday nights; cord-cutting among young viewers, many of whom get their fantasy stats off their phones; and the simple fact that there’s so much more to distract us than there used to be.
As an Atlantic piece pointed out this fall, it’s not just the NFL. Ratings are down for everything except cable news. President Trump can, indeed, take credit for that development.
Look, this is no public relations campaign from an NFL apologist. Given the choice, give me a college football game. But Cuban’s reaching when he promotes this notion of an NFL Armageddon.
Can NFL owners continue to make money like they have? Probably not. Will they have to stop charging $60,000 for seat licenses and $100 for parking? Probably so.
Will Jerry Jones’ heirs look back fondly on the days when they printed money?
Just remember: NFL owners have the advantage of the weakest union in pro sports. College football provides the NFL the most ready-made supply of talent in any sport. NFL teams play in stadiums that will last generations.
Sure, the NFL’s popularity will fade. Sports are cyclical. Before pro wrestling went to costumes and makeup, Frank Gotch headlined one of the most popular sports in America. And it was dying even before Gotch’s death at 40 in 1917.
The arc of the NFL’s popularity will stretch considerably longer. Think on the scale of global warming, even if you don’t believe in it, either.
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