The NFL's recent $765 million dollar settlement with its former players has taken one of the few negative storylines about our favorite pastime off the front pages.
Three quarters of a billion dollars sure sounds like a hefty settlement, but the $1 million per team annual contribution for 20 years represents a mere rounding error for a $10 billion industry that enjoys such influence over our culture. And many believe it was a cheap price to pay for eliminating a legal discovery process that may have revealed incriminating (early) knowledge of the long-term dangers associated with repeated concussions.
Nevertheless, it would take far more than a medical conspiracy to remove the NFL from our national fabric. Professional football has survived calls for its abolition, periodic betting and steroid scandals, intense competition from a number of aggressive start-up professional leagues, and so many off-the-field bad behavior incidents with its players that our eyes glaze over at each newly reported incident on ESPN.
A snapshot of the league's pervasive impact puts it all into perspective:
NFL television ratings remain extraordinarily strong; Monday Night Football is an American institution; fans willingly (if not happily) pay a fee for the privilege of buying season tickets; fantasy leagues dominate Internet and sports radio chatter; a 30-second Super Bowl commercial costs $3.5 million; off-season workouts generate major media coverage; the college draft has been transformed into a made-for-TV event; John Facenda (and his distinctive voice on "NFL Films") has evolved into cultural icon status; we (yes, I'm including the Ehrlichs) watch young guys in the latest Under Armour apparel run around the NFL Combine into the wee hours … in the dead of winter; and the president of the United States attempts to associate the league's popularity with the marketing of his decidedly unpopular health care reform. Oh, and don't forget the highly anticipated selection of Carrie Underwood (replacing Faith Hill) as the lead-in for the glitzy pyrotechnic opening to Sunday Night Football.
So, what is it about NFL football that makes it so immensely popular, and so prototypically American?
Four reasons come to mind.
First, we are typically attracted to aggressive sports. (Witness the increasing popularity of the brutal mixed martial arts). In fact, it was not so long ago that the NFL spent part of its advertising budget marketing "best hits" videos to its fans. And the toughest, hardest hitting players (Dick Butkus, Ronnie Lott, Jack Tatum) were used to market the league's tough guy image. (True Fact: A Butkus poster hung on my bedroom wall as a young teenager.) Alas, such promotion will now go the way of the dinosaur in light of the new, litigious era of player protection and large fines for helmet-to-helmet hits.
Second, we tend to favor offense over defense. Major League Baseball understood this aspect of American culture when it lowered the pitcher's mound and juiced up its ball in response to an era of dominant pitching in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Similarly, the NFL transformed a running league into a wide open passing league through rule changes that make it more difficult for defensive backs to cover receivers. And the NBA adopted the three-point shot and defensive three second rule for similar reasons. (What, you thought the L.A. Lakers' highly marketed "Showtime" was about defense?)
Third, football is the direct beneficiary of another American passion — gambling. Seems as though every office has a weekly pool. And that pool's point spreads are established by the large Las Vegas sports books. Today, 41 percent of all Vegas sports betting is devoted to football. Thirty-three million Americans participate in fantasy football leagues, a participation rate that increases by 2 million per year. And it is estimated that up to $380 billion is wagered on illegal betting or offshore accounts during the season.
Parenthetically, but not surprisingly, my weekly football picks against WJFK's sports "Junkies" when I was governor produced more constituent feedback on the stump than did my positions on Maryland politics.
Last, professional football benefits from an extremely popular "minor league" known as "college football." Compare fandom's narrow interest in minor league baseball (where you probably only follow the progress of your team's minor league players, if that) to the huge network television ratings and revenues generated each Saturday during the fall.
In fact, some pundits say college football is America's second favorite sport. (It already is the second most popular gambling destination.) I once believed this opinion did a disservice to baseball, still commonly referred to as our national pastime. Then I read about ABC's placement of a "Johnny Cam" on the helmet of Texas A&M's quarterback Johnny Manziel for the big showdown with the Alabama Crimson Tide. As though the public hasn't been exposed to enough "Johnny Football" story lines over the past nine months. Which got me thinking about that second favorite sport thing again…
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears on Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.