Yesterday I had a post on American football, which provoked an irate comment from a reader. I’m used to irate, somewhat defensive reactions from American football fans when I critique the sport. As today is the Super Bowl, the biggest sporting event in America—but definitely not in the world—, I think I’ll recidivate with some observations on this curious game, which is truly an American exception (and a little bit Canadian too, to be fair).
First, I wonder if the TV announcers will inform the audience during the game that the Super Bowl is being watched by an audience of “one billion” around the world, as they used to back in the 1980s (and in the era before satellite television), as if living rooms, bars, and cafés in France, Finland, Turkey, Kenya, India, China, Brazil, and you name it were packed with people at 3 o’clock in the morning watching a game almost no one knew a thing about, of teams and players they’d never heard of, and of which they really couldn’t care less. I thought it was a complete hoot that anyone could say such a thing, let alone imagine it. In point of fact, the worldwide TV audience for recent Super Bowls has been on the order of 100 million for the whole game and spiking to 150 million for part of it (most no doubt for the half-time show). At least 97% of this is in the US, with most of the rest in Canada and among Americans abroad. Really, the near totality of the world’s non-American population has never heard of the Super Bowl, let alone has an interest in watching it. For the anecdote, when the Chicago Bears went to the Super Bowl in 1986, I was living in Cairo. I very much wanted to see the game, as I was a Bears fan and they’d had a great season and with a great team. Impossible. I couldn’t even get it on shortwave radio, let alone on television. Even the Marines at the US embassy had to wait a couple of days before receiving the video cassette tape. If you had asked 100 people at random in Tahrir Square what they thought of the Super Bowl, you would have received 100 blank stares.
Beginning in the late ’80s Canal+ in France began broadcasting the Super Bowl but for subscribers only (so the image was scrambled). In 1997, when the Green Bay Packers went to the Super Bowl for the first time since the Lombardi era, I absolutely had to see it, having been a childhood Packers fan in Milwaukee during that era (if you want to hear about the 1967 season, including the famous “Ice Bowl,” I will tell you all about it). The only place to watch it publicly in Paris was at American-themed restaurants with special Super Bowl nights. I went to the Mustang Bar in Montparnasse, from midnight to 4 AM. It was packed. Almost all Americans. Beginning in 2007 the Super Bowl shifted from subscription TV to France 2 and now W9. The NFL, in an effort (futile) to market its product abroad, is most certainly giving the broadcast rights away for next to nothing, if not for free. The proof: there is minimal to no advertizing during the game. Try watching a football game where ads are replaced by a round-table of specialists—here, Frenchmen who’ve played football in the US at some level—analyzing the game, or just the announcers yakking on while nothing is happening on the field. One realizes how much dead time there is in American football. It makes the watching experience tedious.
I mentioned the effort of the NFL to market itself abroad, to go global in the age of globalization. The NFL is looking at the NBA, MLB, and NHL, with their increasing numbers of non-American players (plus non-Canadian for the NHL) and audiences abroad—particularly for the NBA—, and wants to get in on the act. So it now holds a regular season game a year in London and exhibition games in Tokyo and Mexico City (the games quickly sell out, which is normal; it’s like the circus rolling into town for a day). It’s a joke. The NFL has no chance whatever of spawning significant interest abroad. One would think they’d have learned something from the failure of NFL Europe. First, the NFL is trying to promote itself—the league—and not the sport of American football itself (unlike FIFA, which promotes soccer in parts of the world where it is not dominant by building youth and amateur leagues; promoting the sport itself, from the bottom up). The NFL is acting like a businessman trying to market a product and make money. But a sport is not a product. It’s a lot more that that; it’s a culture and a practice, and a taste for which is developed young. If one does not become hooked on a team sport by, say, the age of 12, it will likely never happen.
For this reason, the NFL has no chance of gaining a significant audience abroad, as the game is not played anywhere except as a variant in Canada. No sport can take off somewhere if it is not actually played there. And if one does look at a sport—as it is played—as a product, American football is a bad one, or at least totally unadapted to the world market. It is unexportable. The reason why the NBA is followed around the world and with increasing numbers of non-Americans playing for it is because basketball is a big sport in much of the world and America has long been the best at it (though that’s beginning to change). It is America’s most successful sporting export (actively promoted abroad by the YMCA not long after it was invented and codified in the US). Basketball is an easy sport to learn and can be played by just about anyone (of a certain height at least). Baseball, which was brought to the countries where it is played—notably Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Japan—by American soldiers or oil company personnel, is also a relatively easy sport to learn and can be played by anyone (one does not need to be big, strong, and/or tall, or even run particularly fast). And it’s a great game, though one has to grow up with it to think this.
Not the case with American football. It is a minor sport in Germany—thanks to US soldiers, who introduced it there—and the NFL has a niche audience in Britain—dating from the 1980s, when NFL games were broadcast on Sunday nights on ITV and at a time when the soccer First Division was in crisis on account of rampant hooliganism and decrepit stadiums—, but that’s about it. One of the reasons for this is that there are other oval ball games out there that are objectively superior to American football and with greater growth potential, most notably rugby, both union and league. I used to think rugby was a game of little interest—and by definition inferior to US football—until I watched it for the very first time in 1999—France-New Zealand in the semi-final of the Rugby Union World Cup—and tried to figure out its rules and logic. I decided there and then that it was in fact a superior game to US football. And this has been reconfirmed in every game I’ve seen since. In 2009 I went to the Charléty stadium in Paris to see my very first rugby league game (France-Australia). Rugby league, which is a minor sport in France compared to union—it’s mainly played in northern England and eastern Australia—, is considered to be close to American football, so I was interested in seeing it. Again, it is a superior sport to its distant American cousin and for several reasons, which I enumerated at the time for a skeptical American friend:
First, American football has become a freak show, where the average weight of players is now around 250 lbs (113 kg), and with linemen over 300 (136 kg). This is grotesque. Rugby players are beefy but some 35 lbs lighter on average.
Second, American football is violent and dangerous, with a significant percentage of former players suffering dementia after age 50 from all the concussions they sustained during their careers. The NY Times had a number of investigative articles on this at the time and which finally got the US Congress interested (and obliged the NFL to stop denying reality). This is, BTW, the main reason why soccer has taken off in the US among middle and upper-middle class boys: because their parents don’t want them playing football and getting hurt! Rugby is not so violent or dangerous. And as one may have noticed, their players don’t wear helmets or pads.
Third, the action in football is too halting and, as mentioned above, with too much dead time. The ball is in play for maybe seven seconds, followed by 45 during which the players huddle, pat each other on the bum, or just stand around. Football players spend way more time doing nothing on the field than doing something. In rugby, the action is continuous, with few breaks in the play. A few NFL teams have gone to no-huddle offenses but they’re still the exception. The dead time in American football and the incessant breaks in the action are invariably the first critiques one will hear of the game by a non-American who has tried to watch it. (Another critique is its excessive complexity)
Fourth, and related to the above, there are 60 minutes on the clock in football but only 12 minutes or so of real action. But—and here’s the kicker—the games last for at least 3 hours! This is way too long. There are 80 minutes in rugby, almost all action, and the games last a maximum of 1 hour 50 minutes (as with soccer). The rugby league game I went to started at 3:30 PM and I was thankfully out of the stadium at 5:20.
One particularity of American football may be added that sets it off from all other team sports—and renders it all the more unexportable—, which is its hyper-specialization. Every team sport involves specialization of players at given positions but all have a chance to handle the ball and score. E.g. in basketball, all players—forwards, guards, and center—dribble and shoot, in baseball all players—be they outfielders, basemen, or even the pitcher (except in leagues with the stupid DH rule)—get to bat (likewise in cricket), in soccer and hockey all players (including the goalkeepers) can move the ball or puck and take a shot on goal, in rugby (and in Gaelic and Australian rules football) everyone moves the ball. But not in American football. In addition to the particularity of having the team split into two—offense and defense, plus specialized kickers and punters—, only six or seven of the 22+ players have the right to handle the ball and score, except in cases of fumble recoveries or interceptions. The role of most of the players is blocking and tackling, to be the foot soldiers for the general (the quarterback) and his officers (running backs and receivers). This is not an issue for spectators but I think it is for the players themselves, at least when they start playing the game as children. This is an empirical question—which I have admittedly not looked into—but I cannot believe that the vast majority of boys who start playing football as children don’t wish to be quarterback, running back, and/or receiver. Do any willingly choose to be a guard or tackle? This is why American football can only be played in organized leagues with adult coaches assigning positions, deciding who will be quarterback, wide receiver, offensive guard, linebacker, etc, and which then becomes the player’s specialty. And a perverse effect of this: insofar as linemen have to be big, otherwise normally built boys will put on bulk, thereby becoming fat, if not obese. I’m sorry but to put it colloquially, I think all this sucks.
Another problem with American football. It cannot be played by girls. Women play everything nowadays—even rugby and judo—but not US football. Sure, some play flag, but flag is not taken seriously. It will never be the softball equivalent of baseball’s hardball.
Conclusion: American football is interesting to watch if one grew up with it but, objectively speaking, it’s a lousy game and with zero export potential. And in view of the manifest danger it poses to the health and lifespan of its players, it may well decline over time, as has boxing. With all this said, I’ll now go watch the Super Bowl, if I can stay awake for it.