Nothing is forever, and the only constant in life is change. In your father’s day, baseball ruled the country’s hearts and minds as the premier American sport. While it still gets to keep its honorary title as the American Pastime, football on the other hand, particularly the NFL, has become the new favorite form of sports entertainment amongst the masses.
Yet, with advancements in medical technology, and the ability to better understand the consequences of concussions, football is potentially entering the waning days of its dominance and perhaps even relevancy.
Like all sports, football thrives on its ‘farm system.’ The Pop Warners that rule the parks and playgrounds, teach children the fundamentals of the game. It also begins to separate players who are more suited for skilled positions (quarterbacks and wide receivers) than kids who are more inclined for speed, size or strength positions (or perhaps not even playing at all).
The Pop Warner system feeds into the high school programs, where roles become more formal, more defined, and mostly permanent. After four years of honing skills and athletic ability, the best-of-the-best might get the opportunity to play at the collegiate level, where after another four-or-five years, the best-of-the-best might get the opportunity to play in the NFL.
The issues facing football, at least for the time being, aren’t necessarily found at the collegiate or professional levels. Instead, they are found during the Pop Warner years. The issue is simply a declining level of participation during the developmental years of the sport, and a culture of parenting that will steer their children into different avenues of athletic recreation.
Despite the best efforts by Pop Warner to raise awareness and limit the possibilities of concussions for its participants, Pop Warner has seen “slight decreases” in their enrollment over the last two years. As forecasted, weary parents, it seems, are being scared off by the sudden rush of new information regarding head traumas. They’re simply beginning to not let their children play. While only a slight number of parents have withdrawn their youngsters, with every year that passes, more information becomes available, and more parents might continue finding different activities for their children to participate in.
As children who normally would have worked their way through the farm system potentially become less and less, so will decrease the pool of potential talent for the NFL. Let’s make something perfectly clear here; if the NFL does, one day in the future, cease to exist, or its popularity is only a fraction of what it currently is, its downfall will not be because everyone suddenly became enlightened to the pitfalls of concussions and decided to no longer put themselves in circumstances that may cause bodily harm. If that were the case, people would have stopped smoking long ago.
Instead, the NFL might one day falter because the player’s playing the game simply won’t be as good as they used to be. If parents become scared off by the medical consequences of football, and don’t allow their children the possibility of playing at a young, developmental level, then in 20-to-30 years, the future Larry Fitzgerald’s, Jerry Rice’s, Peyton Manning’s, Dan Marino’s, and Walter Payton’s of the game, will never exist. They will have never stepped foot on the field. Their talents and athletic ability will be directed into different ventures like baseball, basketball, or other sports
If all this happens, the talent offered by a future NFL might one day rival the bad high school football that was given to us by the now defunct XFL.
So what will take the NFL’s place if, in a few decades, the NFL becomes an unwatchable mess? Will baseball rise once more, and engulf the hearts of the nation like yesteryear? Will Lebron James continue where Michael Jordan left off, and turn the NBA into the world-wide cultural event David Stern can only dream of? Will hockey…I honestly can’t finish that sentence.
So if the NFL takes a back seat to another sport, what will that sport be?
Thirty-years ago, soccer was supposed to be the next big thing to hit the United States, and we’re still waiting for it. Just because soccer’s rise of popularity is taking a little longer than expected, doesn’t mean that statement still isn’t true.
Since the 2010 World Cup, ratings for soccer continues to increase. The recent UEFA Euro Cup saw a 46% rise of viewers since the 2008 campaign. The MLS has recently penned a deal with NBC to air games on the network, as well as NBC’s sports affiliate. The USL is beginning to expand their markets to try to rival the MLS (it sort of reminds me of baseball’s National League and American League before the 2000 merger, or the NBA and the ABA). Simply put, soccer is expanding. While it’s nowhere near as popular as football (or hockey for that matter), football wasn’t nearly as popular as baseball during baseball’s years of dominance, either. Things change, and large contributing factors besides economical, are also cultural. The culture is beginning to embrace soccer.
Along with television ratings, soccer’s popularity at the youngster, junior high, and high school levels are also experiencing significant rises in popularity. The farm system for the sport is now being founded, and as a result, the pool of talent is widening. While immediate results won’t yield the type of world-class players seen in Europe, Latin America, Asia or Africa for at least a few generations, with every year that passes, the talent in these farm levels will continue to get better, and as a consequence, the game become much more enjoyable to the watch.
Also, while immigration into the United States has curbed recently, due in part to the economical downturn, millions of people still immigrate to the country every year, and from all over the world. Millions of people who come from countries where soccer is king.
In the past, children of these immigrants might have turned away from soccer and embraced more ‘American’ sports like baseball or football, because avenues to embrace their parents’ first love weren’t available in their communities. As professional soccer becomes more visible on network television though, and as youth programs become more readily available as well, parents now have more options than ever before to put their child in a soccer club at a young, medium and older age, and to provide them with televised methods of getting their children interested.
The seeds have been planted, and while the NFL tries to get over bounty programs, suicides, and health concerns, the most popular sport in the world is beginning to find its footing in the United States. I love football (the American version), and I’m not advocating for its demise. Trends are trends though, and if you keep following them, they tend to lead you in a certain direction. No matter what, football, like baseball, will one day be replaced with another sport that becomes our national passion. It’s not a question of if, it’s just a matter of which sport will one day replace it.
I’m guessing the one with the same name.