As a distraction from the constant stream of news about the agonizingly turtle-like pace of Hurricane Dorian and the typical bloodsport of our divisive politics, it's worth mentioning that the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers meet tomorrow night to kick-off the 2019 NFL season.
But this is not just any season. The National Football League turns 100 this year.
Despite recent controversies that drained some of its popularity — such as concerns about players' brain injuries, players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, and players committing acts of violence against women — the NFL remains a financial and cultural juggernaut among America's professional sports.
In 2018, the NFL generated $16 billion in revenue, according to a USA Today report from June. That was 60% more than the runner-up sport, Major League Baseball. Pro football's revenues today also are nearly fourfold what they were in 2001.
Meanwhile, although its television ratings have taken a hit in recent seasons because of the aforementioned issues, the NFL continues to ride high because football remains Americans' most popular sport.
In June the National Football Foundation reported that the NFL ranked first, followed by college football, among sports with the largest share of "core fans." In January 2018 the Gallup organization reported that 37% of Americans declared football their favorite spectator sport. That was down from 43% a decade earlier, when football hit peak popularity in Gallup's poll, but it still was more than triple the runner-up sport, basketball. Gallup also noted that football has held the top spot since supplanting baseball in 1972.
Entering its centennial season, the NFL today is a far cry from its humble beginnings. As History.com recounts, the American Professional Football Association launched in 1920 with franchises in 11 relatively small towns — places like Decatur, Illinois, Hammond, Indiana, Racine, Wisconsin, and Rochester, New York. Lacking a formal, official schedule, the teams not only played each other, but also other community teams and even some college teams. Pro football also was largely ignored. History.com notes those APFA games recorded an average crowd of 4,241 — today, NFL teams average almost 68,000 fans each game. In that first year, the champion was not crowned because of winning a title game. Rather the Akron Pros became the first champs after the other teams voted Akron the best in April 1921.
Pro football, as we know, eventually caught on. But, as Gallup observed, that was largely because of television. Now, some argue the NFL suffers from television — in addition to the social issues that have become so prevalent in recent years — because of overexposure and because catering to TV slows down the pace.
This centennial season could be a pivotal test to determine whether we've reached "peak" NFL. The sport's critics could be right if Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners cannot show they're dealing more effectively with brain injuries as well as substance abuse, off-field violence and political controversies.
If the Goodell and Co. can keep the focus on the game, the fans will be there — as shown in part by the despicable display of some Indianapolis Colts fans booing hero quarterback Andrew Luck after he suddenly announced last month that he would put his overall health and long-term future above the sport and retire at age 29 after a string of injuries.
As with Romans of yore, modern Americans seem fascinated by watching the biggest, most powerful, most athletic men our society can create pummel each other in the most brutal fashion, and in a contest that features a lingo and emotional mindset mirroring that of war. Pro football has fulfilled that primal instinct for 100 years. And until we can find a way to excise that instinct from the human psyche, pro football should continue to thrive as entertainment, and a distraction from life's real worries.