What Makes America’s Favorite Pastime So Popular?
Team loyalty is kind of a hard thing to justify in the end. You know? I love the Giants, but when you think about it, who are the Giants? You know what I mean? I mean it’s different guys. Every year it’s different guys, right? The team will move from city to city.
You’re rooting for clothes when you get right down to it. […] I want my team’s clothes to beat the clothes from another city. […] Laundry. We’re rooting, we’re screaming about laundry here.
People will love a guy. You know what I mean? Then the guy will get traded. He’ll come back on another team. They hate him now. […] This is the same human being in a different shirt. “Boo! Get! We hate him now!” Different shirt […] “Boooooo!”
— Jerry Seinfeld, Late Show with David Letterman (1994)
We love football. In a country of over 320 million people, over one third of the population of United States watches the Super Bowl each year. That’s over 110 million Americans tuning in to a single game on single day. To put this in perspective, there were only 40 million viewers of the second most watched sporting event last year. It was game seven of the 2016 World Series — a storybook ending between two underdogs, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, fighting hard to claim a long-awaited title. It didn’t matter; it wasn’t football.
Of course, not everyone watches football. Two-thirds of the country miss the Super Bowl each year. And not everyone has the same reasons for watching. But then, what are the reasons? Why do so many of us care about this gridiron game? In short, it’s because football is an extremely efficient use of our time (seriously).
American football fulfills more human needs than nearly any other pastime; it checks more boxes at once than other forms of entertainment. Imagine you’re at a sports bar with friends, family, and fellow fans cheering on your favorite team as they majestically win a close game against their most hated rival. Everyone is cheering; you’re swept up in the excitement. Community, belonging, family time, self worth, gloating, escapism, positive stress, stress release, celebration, novelty, and awe-inspiring athleticism — all of this happening in just over three hours. And we’re just getting started.
Football also provides us a safe topic of conversation like entertainment news or the weather. Yet, in football, these conversations can become quite elaborate between people of differing opinions (unlike politics, which often leads to yelling, tears, and general destruction). Why? Because discussing coaching decisions or game strategy can be incredibly involved, but the speculation doesn’t change our lives. Whether you would have gone for two or kicked the extra point doesn’t matter. “It’s just a game,” we tell ourselves. Sure, the emotions are real; the devastation is real; the excitement and joy and comradery are real. But there are no lasting repercussions.
The paradox of football is that it is totally meaningless and incredibly meaningful at the same time. With our deep community ties, sense of self worth wrapped up in our favorite teams, and significant emotional investment spent year after year, it’s no wonder football is such a powerful force. But that could be said about any sport. What is it that makes football so unique?
For starters, our favorite football teams play only once per week. This is a stark contrast between baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey. The mid-week dry spell creates a level of anticipation with an almost Pavlovian response once the weekend comes around. Also, the shorter schedule means every game counts. In college, one fluke upset can mean a lost chance at the national title. And as fans know, a blocked field goal run back for a touchdown by an unranked opponent does happen.
Also, American football is unique in that it’s, well, American. We embrace our American exceptionalism with a national pastime that is rarely played outside of the country. It’s a game of territory that developed on the heels of westward expansion; a game where, unlike soccer, players line up as they march down the field, making it clear how much land has been claimed, never looking back. It’s an American story, unique to the United States, with ever-changing rules and regulations mimicking our innovative spirit. Football is America’s game because it embodies our history, our unique values, and our culture. It stands atop the pile of major global sports (above soccer), because it’s unique to who we are as a nation. We are unique, and therefore, we should have a unique pastime.
On some level, humans are rational creatures looking for efficient ways to spend our most valuable resource — time. Watching football is a way to spend time with friends and family; it’s a way to feel connected to something larger than ourselves, to feel included in a community, to talk with strangers without worrying that we will offend them. Football is an outlet to escape a reality that’s too stressful, too serious, too easy or hard or soft. It’s a sport of graceful human ability and athleticism where every game matters and anticipation builds up throughout the week. It is this broad appeal that makes it popular. We may intellectually agree with Jerry Seinfeld’s clothing comments, but deep down even Seinfeld knows that our teams are so much more than just laundry.
Hirt, Edward R., and Joshua J. Clarkson. “The Psychology of Fandom: Understanding the Etiology, Motives, and Implications of Fanship.” Consumer Behavior Knowledge for Effective Sports and Event Marketing (2011): 59–85. (Source)
Paolantonio, Sal. How football explains America. Triumph Books, 2015.