Here comes Super Bowl 52, or in official parlance, LII. It’s already considered a game people won’t care much about outside of Philadelphia or New England. Almost no one south and west of the Massachusetts state line likes the Patriots, the so-called evil empire, twice-caught cheaters, and the favored team of one Donald J. Trump; and many of those same people can’t stand the stereotypical Philadelphia sports fan, a singularly unique American caricature with a propensity for booing a missed note during the National Anthem then getting kicked out of the venue before halftime in a drunken, vomit-laced stupor. Here are Eagles fans greeting Minnesota Vikings fans in Philly before the recent NFC Championship Game.
Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, refers to this year’s match-up as an “Existential Hell,” and while few of us want to see the despised Brady and Co. win another title, we don’t have good wishes for the degenerates of Eagles Stadium, either, even if we’re more neutral about the actual team.
Of course, that’s barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to football. The elephant in the room continues to be, as it should, the deeply troubling research findings about head injuries connected to the game. The fallout is beginning to erode the sport’s infrastructure. It’s still just a relative trickle at the moment–a few players have walked away at their peaks, citing head injury concerns–but a big-name defection just occurred – broadcasting legend Bob Costas stepped away from Super Bowl coverage, saying he has long had ambivalent feelings about football because it “destroys people’s brains.”
And it lines people’s pocketbooks. The value of all NFL teams combined is roughly $75 billion. The current broadcast and cable TV package is valued at $27 billion. The average player salary is around $2.7 million, with the most money–$27 million–going to Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who failed to lead his team to the playoffs. At the college level, football remains the big ticket sport and in some cases can support entire athletic programs with its proceeds. So the gravy train is roaring full speed ahead, and that momentum will keep the game front and center in American culture for years to come.
The erosion is real, though, and much of it is occurring quietly, among young families. Fewer parents are letting their children play football, and that talent drain will become apparent at some point and presumably lessen the game’s appeal. And make no mistake, the game is appealing, head injuries and all. I played for three or four short weeks when I was 10–I didn’t like getting hit–but I grew up enthusiastically watching it and went to LA Rams games for years with my season ticket-holding father. When my son was approached about playing football his mother and I quickly said no, but we still watch games on TV. The sport has a wonderfully linear quality that comes through very well, and the athleticism is remarkable – beautiful, actually.
But the “beautiful game” tag lies elsewhere, with international football, or futbol, or soccer. It is unquestionably the world’s game and it appears to finally be gaining a lasting foothold in the US. Soccer is one of the most popular youth sports in the country based on participation, and Major League Soccer continues to grow its fan base, especially among those 40 and under. Having said that, though, soccer has its own head injury concerns. But they may be more easily addressed, by moving to limit the amount of ball-heading that occurs, and certainly at the youth levels.
As for American football, a recent Gallup Poll showed it is still the most popular spectator sport in the country even though it has lost ground over the last decade. I believe that decline will continue, with basketball and soccer eventually rising to the top positions. It may take awhile–remember the money–but that day is likely coming, if not in my lifetime then probably during my son’s. He’s 19. History shows us it’s certainly possible – the two most popular American sports in the first half of the 20th Century were boxing and horse racing, while baseball, football and basketball waited their turns for ascension. Soccer is on deck now.
With all that as a backdrop, Super Bowl LII figures to be another TV extravaganza and–as usual–a license to print money; 30-second spots are going for $5 million. Much of the country and the world will be watching, as much for the spectacle, the halftime show, and the commercials as for the game itself. I’ll be watching, too. I can’t seem to look away. Go Eagles (offered with minimal excitement).