There’s a movement occurring in the American sports landscape. Some people are aware of the shifting opinions, but the numbers don’t quite back it up yet. For the foreseeable future, football and the NFL will reign, basking in the billions of dollars while other leagues play with millions. It would be silly to think football is going anywhere right now after the Super Bowl had the largest TV audience in American history.
However, there are signs of tiny cracks forming in the NFL shield. It won’t happen anytime soon, but maybe a couple decades from now, the hierarchy will look different. In the football shadows rests professional basketball and the NBA. We’re not quite there, but there are signs that the NBA could dethrone the NFL one day.
A recent article from Roberto Ferdman of the Washington Post suggested that the NBA has a better future than other sports leagues right now. One key point of Ferdman’s argument is the average age of the viewer. Between 2004-14, the average age of the NFL fan increased from 43 to 47, whereas the NBA’s stayed even at 37. That’s actually a pretty telling stat because that means the NBA is attracting younger fans at a solid pace, but it’s not that surprising that fans are becoming turned off from the NFL due to scandals and injuries.
Scandals in football have left a stain on the NFL’s image. Just in the last couple of years, you have the Ray Rice and Greg Hardy domestic violence cases, Aaron Hernandez, bountygate, deflategate, Adrian Peterson and his son, Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito, and I’m probably forgetting a couple. The NBA is no saintly league, though. The Malice in the Palace incident occurred 11 years ago, and since then we’ve had Tim Donaghy and Donald Sterling as major controversies. There’s nothing OK about players fighting with fans or owners making racist comments in a league that, as of two years ago, was more than 75 percent black. That said, the NFL has serious problems to address with murders, dog fighting, interpersonal violence, bullying, etc.
With recent high profile cases of CTE in Jovan Belcher and Junior Seau, there’s a serious discussion about how safe football is. Chris Borland retired at the age of 24 due to health concerns. The NFL says concussion numbers are down, and other supporters say the league has never been safer with the knowledge players have. Those might be true, but that doesn’t mean football is a safe sport; there’s a difference in safer from before and safe, period. Football fans will continue to root for the big hit. Nothing riles up a defense than a linebacker lowering the lumber on a running back. In this video, Stevan Ridley fumbles after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit. He collapses onto the ground on his back. These types of plays aren’t uncommon. The NBA is not free of concussions either – Paul George took a knee to the back of his head last year – but football is a more physical sport and therefore more susceptible to concussions.
One big factor working in the NBA’s favor is how international the game has become. Kobe and LeBron are celebrities in Asia, but who is Peyton Manning? NFL Europa flopped, and there’s no serious American football played outside of this country. Contrast that with the FIBA World Cup and the Dream Team, and you see that basketball is vastly ahead of football globally. It’s no soccer, but it’s growing. It helps that all you need is a ball and a hoop; you don’t need anyone else to play.
But as much as it might seem like the NBA is catching up to the NFL, football holds the ultimate prize: Money and viewers. TV money is absolutely insane when it comes to the NFL. The league is raking in about $7 billion a year, meaning about $300 million per team based on media rights. In comparison, the NBA just went from $930 million a year to $2.7 billion in the latest TV deal. That deal was a major coup for the NBA as it nearly tripled its previous revenue, but it still pales in comparison to the NFL. Does NFL viewership change if women start to become disenchanted with the domestic violence cases? But on the flip side, do NBA numbers increase since there’s a big difference in tuning in once a week versus the 82-game schedule? There’s no real way to tell the future a decade from now when new TV deals are signed for both leagues, but the NBA looks to be trending up.
For the sake of hypotheticals, let’s think about how the sports landscape might look in 20 years in 2035. Football will still be relevant. I don’t doubt that for one second. The Super Bowl continues to serve as a pseudo-holiday and brings in ludicrous numbers of viewers and ad money. Despite the safety concerns and the scandals, football will still bring in way more viewers for the third day of the draft than it deserves.
But watch how the NBA develops and grows until then. The NBA has the only chance of supplanting the NFL in the pecking order in 20 years. After a post-Jordan lull, the league has a ton of U-25 stars that will help usher in the next generation of players and fans. The product is fun to watch (and so much better than its college counterpart), particularly in the playoffs. The stars connect with fans way better and on a more national basis than football players. The African-American youth, who might model themselves after the many likable black athletes of the NBA, will continue to shoot hoops. But who knows? This is all speculation, and I’m probably not giving the NFL enough credit. For all I know, the MLS will be the top sports league in 20 years. It’s just possible that one day we might look back and point to this rash of scandals and head injuries as a turning point for America’s favorite sports.
Cover photo by Matthew West, Boston Herald.