*I have seen the future of professional football in this country. And that future is as a niche sport behind basketball, soccer, and baseball.
The NFL is currently the most profitable league in the United States. Professional football franchises are worth more than any other franchise in North America. And it would seem that despite all of the hub-bub about head injuries, football continues to maintain its popularity.
Nevertheless there are multiple reasons that football will ultimately lose.
- Head Injuries will decrease the size of the next generation of football players. There will always be people who are athletically gifted and financially depressed. Therefore there will always be people who want to play and parents who allow their kids to play as a way of changing their economic situation. But because of the threat of head trauma some of those families will choose to focus their athletic ability on other sports. Furthermore, as football loses part of the talent pool to other sports college and professional football play will decrease in quality. This will set in motion a self-perpetuating cycle of less people interested, less people playing, less quality of play.
- The cost of fielding a football team. On a related note, because of the threat of injury (head or otherwise) and the number of people on a roster, insuring a team is an expensive proposition. In addition the equipment is also a big investment. A helmet, shoulder pads, girdle, football pants, thigh pads, knee pads, and cleats should be the bare minimum of protective gear for a youth football player and will cost hundreds of dollars. The cost of football is prohibitive and when it becomes less attractive it is bound to lose a chunk of kids playing.
- American Football isn’t a global sport. American style football is not played outside of North America. So there is no large group of people with disposable income willing to replace the people in our country as the next generation. Much to the contrary, the best young athletes in other countries grow up playing basketball and soccer. Notably basketball and soccer require the least amount of equipment to play. Sports like Australian football and rugby further sap the global strength of American football because people who might play football in other countries have alternatives that can scratch the tough guy itch they might have while avoiding the threat of injury.
- American Football is not the most profitable option for kids in precarious financial situations. Compared to baseball, basketball, and soccer, football offers people the least amount of financial benefits because the contracts are not fully guaranteed and the average career length is the shortest. Anyone considering football versus these other sports will begin to look at the risk/reward equation and determine they would be better off not playing football.
- Basketball and soccer can still grow in the United States. This seems obvious with regards to soccer because we have one professional male league with none of the top players. So as more of the athletic talent goes into soccer there will be more of an opportunity for good players to stay in this country and boost Major League Soccer. While the NBA is already considered the best professional league in the world, its affiliated minor league (the Developmental League) is subpar. Second tier American basketball players do no play in the D-League, they usually go to Europe (and China increasingly) to make a living. Once more young athletes are funneled into basketball there will be enough talent to grow the D-League in teams and revenue. Major League Baseball already has an abundance of minor leagues that are teeming with talent. So while there may be less of a need for talented young Americans, there is an infrastructure that is able to accommodate a flood of young baseball players.
- Change is inevitable. In the early to mid-20th century baseball was considered the #1 sport in the United States. There were magazines devoted to covering just baseball while the NBA and NFL were still having franchises shut down and/or relocate to different cities because of financial hardship. But today baseball is at best third behind the aforementioned basketball and football leagues. This change happened even as baseball became more inclusive and changed the rules to stimulate offense (lowering the mound, and reconfiguring stadiums to make home runs easier). Baseball may not have intentionally done anything wrong but still ended up losing its place in American leisure. Similarly football can try to address its issues but it remains a fundamentally violent game that people will avoid as more and more knowledge about brain injury becomes available.
I like football. It was probably the sport I was best suited to play. But I do believe that within my lifetime a shift will occur where football will decline. Once you start losing the youth (as baseball did), you’re doomed.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.