The NFL began its 99th season Thursday night. From its amazingly modest beginnings as the American Professional Football Association in 1920 (who can forget the Akron Pros dominating the AFPA that first season?), the NFL has become the most popular professional sports league in the United States. According to Gallup, 37% of adults — or about 90 million Americans — say football is their favorite sport. In addition, about 139 million adults consider themselves a fan of professional football. And it is important to note that this is not just a sport followed by men. Surveys show that 47% of pro football fans are women. That means about 65 million women say they are fans of the NFL.
The NFL isn’t just followed by millions of men and women. According to Forbes, the NFL generates more than $13 billion in revenue. No other professional sports league in North America is this successful. In essence, whether we consider fans or dollars, football and the NFL rules the American sports landscape.
Trouble, though, is on the horizon. Since 2012, the percentage of adults following pro football has fallen from 67% to 57%. And since 2006, the percentage of adults who say football is their favorite sport has fallen from 43% to 37%.
Declining popularity is not the only issue facing football. As Austin Murphy at Sports Illustrated noted two years ago, football faces a problem that may threaten the very existence of the NFL. The problem Murphy identifies stems from the work of Kimberly Archie, who has spent years calling attention to the significant health risks posed by football to children.
“Think Erin Brockovich with a neurologist’s grasp of traumatic brain injuries. In her other roles, as a sports risk management expert and legal consultant, she has taken on—and vanquished—the NCAA, U.S. Soccer, PG&E and the NFL.”
In addition to this list, Archie is also currently involved in a legal case against Pop Warner. Archie is an advocate of “Flag Until 14”, which is a movement to stop children from playing tackle football until they are in 9th grade. As Archie notes:
“Helmets do not prevent concussions, and with current science and materials available it isn’t even possible to make a youth helmet that prevents skull fractures, and doesn’t increase the risk of brain damage for children before puberty.”
If Archie is successful, youth tackle football — which she notes is already declining — may cease to exist. Archie also notes that in just the last two years, 63 high schools in the United States have stopped offering tackle football.
Murphy noted these trends at Sports Illustrated and argued that if the health risks of tackle football cannot be solved then eventually these issues wouldn’t just end tackle football for children. These problems would also destroy the NFL.
Two years ago I disagreed with this assessment. Even if the issue of concussions cannot be solved in football I still think the NFL survives.
Let’s imagine for a moment that the problems with tackling simply cannot be solved. There is simply no way for this sport to be played safely with tackling. Instead of closing its doors, though, imagine a world where the NFL simply removed tackling from the game. The game that emerged might be two-hand touch. Or it might be flag football or something involving sensors on uniforms. Maybe it would just be some version of the 7-on-7 drills football teams use in practice. Whatever this new form of football takes, it is a game that has the same passing and running football fans have always seen. But the NFL would no longer have hitting as part of its game.
Without hitting, what would it have left? Turns out, quite a bit.
The NFL would have a league with the same teams the fans have always known for decades. So, Dallas Cowboy fans would still have the Cowboys. Chicago Bears fans would still have the Bears. And the Detroit Lions fans would still likely have a team that disappoints them in Detroit.
In addition, many of the players fans love would still be on the field. There would still be quarterbacks and receivers. There would still be running backs. And the fastest defensive players would still be around to chase these players down. What you probably wouldn’t need are giant offensive and defensive lineman. With no tackling, these slower players wouldn’t have much of a role. That means a collection of players that many fans probably can’t name wouldn’t be playing.
Would fans turn in to see this version of the NFL?
The answer to this question gets at a larger question. Why do fans follow the teams in a professional sports league in the first place? One might think it is strictly about the characteristics of the sport. But we see time and time again with new sports leagues that having a sport people love isn’t enough to create a fanbase.
Consider the G League or the NBA’s minor league. The G League consists of many players who have starred in college. Many players have also appeared in the NBA. It is not unreasonable to argue that G League teams would be very successful if they competed in NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball. But despite the talent in the league, attendance remains very low. As the G League notes, last year league attendance surpassed the 1.6 million mark. The league of 26 teams, though, played a 50 game regular season (or 650 regular season games in the league). So, average per game attendance was less than 2,500 fans per contest.
Why does the G League struggle? It’s not the game being played. It’s primarily the lack of familiarity fans have with any of their teams. After all, how many basketball fans can tell you the city that hosts the Red Claws, Legends, or Wolves?
A similar story can be told about women’s soccer. The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final attracted 26.7 million viewers on television. This was the largest audience for a soccer match — played by men or women — in the history of the United States. Clearly, there is an audience for women’s soccer. However, when many of those same players play in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the audiences are much smaller. What explains the difference?
It clearly isn’t the game being played or the names of the athletes. The key issue is the ability of the audience to relate to the teams. When the women play for the United States the audience in the United States knows who they want to win. But when those same athletes play for the Portland Thorn or the Seattle Reign, the audience has a problem. For many fans, there simply is no emotional attachment to teams that didn’t exist a few years ago. Hence, the league struggles to find an audience. As time goes by and the NWSL players create more and more history, the league will find a bigger and bigger audience. But today, that history and much of that audience don’t yet exist.
A new football league that tried to offer a non-tackling version of the game would suffer the same problems as the G-League and the NWSL. Without any history, the fans would simply have no emotional attachment to the teams in this new league. The NFL, though, wouldn’t have this problem. Take away tackling and fans of a team like the Bears would still have an emotional attachment to the Bears. For nearly 100 years the players on the Bears have created a history that has become a part of the lives of the team’s fans. Yes, it took decades. But all that work has resulted in a fanbase and a team that is emotionally linked.
When the tackling is taken away, those fans would have a choice. They could decide to go forward in their lives without the Bears. Or they could start watching the Bears play a different form of football with many of the same players they already love.
There is no way to know for sure right now how the majority of those fans would react. But it is not unreasonable to think that for many fans the thought of living entirely without football is not the choice they would make. Again, these fans have spent a lifetime building an emotional attachment to their favorite NFL team. Many fans will find breaking up with these teams very difficult.
And that means the NFL without tackling would likely have an audience. Again, we are imagining a world where no one gets to play tackle football. In such a world, people would complain. People would be angry. But despite all this, if the choice is no football or a game without tackling, it is not unreasonable to think that millions of women and men would sit and watch their favorite teams try and win at a new game of football.
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