Tonight, the NFL Draft begins—in case you hadn’t heard. The cover of the most recent ESPN The Magazine is dedicated to it, and Sports Illustrated likely would have fronted it, too, had the Boston Marathon bombings not taken precedence. It’s no surprise that the NFL Network will be “flooding the zone” (a phrase coined, incidentally, by former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines, who borrowed it from football). But so will ESPN, with 25 hours of live coverage and analysis over three days, from today's number-one pick through the selection of "Mr. Irrelevant," at the end of the seventh and final round on Saturday evening—nearly all of it on ESPN's eponymous channel, no less. Fretting about our country's obsession with football is not uncommon in October, when an NFL game in primetime will outdraw a World Series match-up and lead to fainting spells among the purists. But it is actually much more amazing that, as Richard Deitsch notes, more than eight million people watched ESPN and NFL Network’s draft coverage last year, besting the NBA Western Conference Finals ratings.
A reminder: Drafts take place at Radio City Music Hall, not the Meadowlands. There isn’t actually any football played. It is rather, as the Guardian put it, “The world’s most popular sporting event that doesn’t contain any actual live sports.”
Tonight’s outsize interest in football is hardly exceptional. Before, say, the 1980s (the first televised draft was in 1980), football was funky and weird. The college game was an exaltation of alma mater and autumn; the pro game had lunchpail teams like the Steelers and lots and lots of handoffs. It was played during the day, and you did not always know what was going on, and the Raiders were really, really good. The L.A. Coliseum was a third empty for Super Bowl I. Baseball was “America’s Pastime,” proud and prestigious, and bearing all the weight those capitalized letters imply.
Today, to call football “America’s Pastime” now, as some have, is meant to convey its ascendance as our national sport, but it's misleading if only because the past is irrelevant: The NFL only cares about dominating now and into the future. In the late-‘90s, Nike deployed the slogan, “Don’t like baseball? Move to Norway.” Even then, that was anachronistic; and ever since baseball’s steroids scandal, Michael Jordan’s retirement, the National Hockey League’s seemingly perpetual management-labor strife, the end of the Agassi-Sampras rivalry, the steady exodus of young basketball talent away from college hoops, and the conclusion of Tiger Woods’ prime, it seems clearer than ever that it is those who can’t stand football who should begin to investigate Scandinavian real estate.
We could—and many do—blame the media. In the first week of March, when college hoops is on the cusp of its annual national spotlight, Sports Illustrated cheekily slapped two college football stars on its covers, where they burst through collages of college basketball players, coaches, and mascots, under the cover-line, “Spring Football ’13. March Madness: Let It Rip! (Sorry, Basketball, Two More Weeks to Wait).” But the media in general, and the sports media in particular, is in business to meet the fans’ desires, and so what it focuses on is usually—to a fault—a reflection of public desire. The fact is, in America, football really is as big as this week's draft coverage suggests.
Historians and prognosticators can tell us just when and why this happened. Some note that several discreet events—the 1958 NFL Championship (a.k.a. “The Greatest Game Ever Played”) and "Monday Night Football" put the most television-friendly sport front and center as the Television Age came into its own. Others point out that NFL was the first major league to significantly share revenue among teams (it copied this from the American Football League, which it absorbed), increasing competitive parity, which just so happens to be a recipe for widespread popularity. You could argue that football uniquely lends itself to gambling. Fantasy football, which is less time-consuming and easier to understand than its baseball predecessor, took off. The season is short enough and paced rigidly enough that even casual fans can follow along, and ditto the college bowls and the postseason. It also may well be—I would submit—that football is the best damn sport in the world.
Whatever the reasons, football is the man among boys of American sports, no matter how you measure it: ratings, media attention, Twitter. And this is dangerous.
Consider the realignment of college conferences. As the hardest-hit conference this year was the Big East, a basketball powerhouse, there was much hand-wringing in March over the fact that Syracuse and Connecticut are no longer formal rivals and that Maryland is now in the Big Ten. But college basketball was merely the collateral damage of conference realignment, which has everything to do with college football's Bowl Championship Series—this week renamed the College Football Playoff, in case you were confused—and its hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars.
Football also sets a bad example. It treats its athletes more cruelly than any other sport, and does so in an exploitatively profitable way, creating an actionable model for the rest of the sports world to follow. Owning an NFL franchise is the sports world’s most reliably lucrative endeavor: Except for the elites of international soccer and a few baseball squads like the New York Yankees, NFL teams comprise the most valuable sports clubs in the world (even the Jets and the Texans!). This is in no small part due to a parity-enabling hard salary cap that keeps payroll down; non-guaranteed contracts that are boons for risk-averse owners; and the regularity with which players are cut. That football is considerably riskier than any other sport, with shorter average careers, exacerbates all of these dynamics, and makes cheap “student-athlete” labor even that much more of a steal for universities.
Lest you doubt the NFL's negative influence on other major sports: Already, the National Basketball Association began requiring its players to play a year in college, giving them training in stoking fan interest while subsidizing the college game and weeding out (for the most part) players who cannot cut it at higher levels—a page right out of the NFL playbook. Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League have hard salary caps, and the main consequence of the last NBA lockout was to make the league’s soft cap stricter by increasing the penalty for those teams that exceed it.
Football also sets the bar for cable costs, which are passed onto consumers, be they football fans or not. A new, ingenious website, What You Pay For Sports, shows how much of your cable bill goes to the various professional leagues and conferences. It reveals that if you get all the cable sports channels, the NFL gets nearly twice as much of your money (more than $21) as do the NBA or Major League Baseball.1 This is nothing short of remarkable given that more than four-fifths of all NFL games, including the entire postseason, air on free networks. If you only get ESPN (which is mainly a hypothetical—cable television is generally bundled), the NFL gets $11 from you per year, as compared to the NBA’s $9.33 for ESPN and TNT—and that’s for a grand total of 16 games.2 The BCS’ $6.10 rivals the NHL’s $6.70; there are just five BCS bowls each year. As long as people will pay this much for football, the costs of other sports will rise, too, as they will seem small by comparison.
This is all without mentioning the NFL’s issues with head trauma, which in 20 years or so could reduce the sport to something like the status boxing currently enjoys. So there is that.
Elsewhere in the wide world of sports this Thursday: Maybe the best basketball player ever, looking to crown probably the best basketball season ever, is playing tonight. The weather outside, finally, screams “baseball.” Despite (or perhaps because of) a severely shortened season, the NHL is entering the playoffs with its most exciting season in recent memory (or so hockey fans tell me). The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team just won its fifth title since 2003. Tiger Woods is number one again. Tennis has its most compelling new star since Serena Williams came onto the scene. Mixed martial arts is a network sport, and soccer—soccer!—will be soon enough.
But tonight all of the talk will be about the NFL Draft. Don't give in. Football’s power over us threatens to reduce us to a nation of myopic junkies who won’t know what to do if anything, whether labor strife or science or soccer, should cut off our drug supply. There is a time for football—it starts in about four months. In the meantime, find a different fix.