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Football Reigns Supreme in the Sports Business…But for How Long?

Football is - and has been for some time - the unquestioned top sport in America. But will younger audiences follow? That is a key question for all in the big business of sports today.

By David WyldPublished 4 months ago Updated 4 months ago 7 min read
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Football Reigns Supreme in the Sports Business…But for How Long?
Photo by Dave Adamson on Unsplash

Introduction

The Super Bowl is almost, in effect, a national holiday today! The National Football League (NFL) reigns supreme in terms of every metric in the world of sports, from television audiences to revenue! The biggest NFL stars - from Patrick Mahomes to a guy who happens to be dating Taylor Swift (Travis Kelce) are not just football stars, but they are major celebrities and media powers today. But today, college football is also a huge revenue-producing machine, with its huge TV ratings, intense fan interest and support, and yes, with “student-athletes” today able to earn money for themselves - big money in many instances - from NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) deals. And even high school football is getting into the act, with nationally televised games on ESPN and high school athletes having their own NIL deals before they ever set foot on a college campus.

Welcome to the wide, wild world of sports as it stands in 2024! Football stands apart as the most popular sport in the United States. And even though football around the world, what we Americans call “soccer,” is an even bigger sport with more ratings and more money, in the U.S., the American version of football is unquestionably the dominant, most popular sport in all the land at present. But will that dominance last? And what - if anything - might supplant football in terms of popularity - and money - someday?

By Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The Gallup Survey on Sports Watching in the U.S.

The survey research giant, Gallup, has been asking Americans what their favorite sport to watch is since way back in 1937. Their most recent survey on this was conducted in December 2023, and the results were just published (“Football Retains Dominant Position as Favorite U.S. Sport”) by Gallup this month (February 2024). As you can see in Figure 1 (America’s Favorite Spectator Sport, 1937-2023), while baseball was indeed the “national pastime” in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, football took over as the favorite sport watch in 1972. It has held that position for now over 50 years!

Figure 1: America’s Favorite Spectator Sport, 1937-2023

Source: Gallup, Football Retains Dominant Position as Favorite U.S. Sport,” February 2024 (Used with permission)

Football is thus the unquestioned king of America’s sports landscape today. As you can see in Figure 2 (America’s Favorite Spectator Sports Ranked, 2023), football is not just America’s favorite spectator sport, it is such today by a wider margin than seen since this survey was begun back in 1937. At present, football is the favorite sport to watch for 41% of all Americans, more than four times the number who say that their favorite spectator sport is either baseball (10%) or basketball (9%). The world’s most popular sport, soccer as we call it, is the favorite of just 5% of all Americans. And below those five sports, viewing interest in sports like golf, tennis, boxing, and wrestling - and even MMA - is negligible in the broad American population.

Figure 2: America’s Favorite Spectator Sports Ranked, 2023

Source: Gallup, Football Retains Dominant Position as Favorite U.S. Sport,” February 2024 (Used with permission)

What is particularly interesting when you dig into the Gallup data, which is generally so favorable for football at every level, is the breakdown in interest in sports by age group. As you can see in Figure 3 (America’s Favorite Spectator Sports Ranked, 2023, by Age Group), football is most popular in the 50-plus age group, with at least 45% of all people “of a certain age” saying that football was their favorite sport to watch. But the Gallup data revealed that football’s popularity was less in younger age groups, with 41% of those 30-49 years old and 28% of those aged 18-29 saying that football was their favorite viewing sport. Football’s lagging popularity among the younger set is not as severe as baseball’s well-documented age problem. As you can see in the Gallup survey results, baseball falls - by half - from being the most popular sport to watch for 16% of those 65 and older to just 8% for those 50-64 years old. By the time one reaches the 18-29 year old age group, just 5% of this demographic group rates baseball as their favorite spectator sport - less than a third that of the senior citizens in the 65 and up age group!

Figure 3: America’s Favorite Spectator Sports Ranked, 2023, by Age Group

Source: Gallup, Football Retains Dominant Position as Favorite U.S. Sport,” February 2024 (Used with permission)

Two other key numbers should jump out to you out of the results conveyed in Figure 3. First, soccer’s growing popularity in the United States has not made it a top-three sport in viewing popularity - yet (see Figure 2). However, with the fact that soccer is 8 times more popular (at 8%) as the favorite sport to watch among 18-29-year-olds today than it is among those aged 65 and older (at just 1%), it is unmistakable that we are likely finally at the point to where soccer in the United States will rise to be up there with baseball and basketball contending to be the second most popular sport in the land - but with the world’s game of football still lagging far behind in popularity to the American variety of football. Secondly, the fact that the “other sports” category is ranked as the most popular sport to watch by the youngest age cohort, those aged 18-29, should certainly draw some attention. Thus, the youngest generations - likely including those younger than 18 - are being drawn to any variety of sports for their viewing. Likely, their attention is being divided among those sports that today - like golf, tennis, MMA, and even rodeo - are ranked as just drawing 1% favoritism today.

By Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Analysis and Discussion

What is interesting about Gallup’s recently released research is not so much football’s dominance across American society and media but rather, the long-term vulnerability of that dominance. As a strategic management professor and consultant who has done specialized research in the sports business industry, I view the Gallup numbers both as encouraging for just about every other sport out there and as cautionary for those in the “Football Industrial Complex.” This is because football, much like baseball, has an age problem. The older the population, the more popular football is in that age group - the same as baseball. Conversely, basketball and particularly soccer are far more popular in the 18-29 age group than in their older counterparts. And note that fully 40% of the 18-29-year-old population list as their favorite sport either none (15%) or a sport other than those in the five most popular sports (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and ice hockey) - 26%! This means that among the youngest segment of the population, football - much less the other sports - has a follower problem. It also means that other sports, like MMA, volleyball, golf, tennis, and even the unmentioned e-sports, have the ability to command attention among younger audiences who aren’t gravitating to football like those in older age groups.

By Thomas Park on Unsplash

In short, football’s dominance as a sport to watch on television seems to be impregnable today, and certainly, the age demographics of football’s popularity show that its dominance should remain unquestioned over the next couple of decades. So, looking to the future, as other sports grow and do take a larger portion of the sports pie, the NFL and college football look positioned to continue to garner high viewership (in 2023, pro football accounted for 93 out of the top 100 ranked tv broadcasts in terms of viewership!) and the massive advertising and rights fees that go with that dominance. The sports pie, though, is a growing one, as in an era of everything and anything ever made being available somewhere on demand, live sports is the sole thing that can draw eyeballs to TVs - and other devices - together at the same time. And yes, the recent surge in interest in the NFL due to the budding romance between the biggest star on the planet today, Taylor Swift, and one of the league’s biggest star players, Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, will likely pay dividends in terms of drawing younger viewers to the NFL’s “product” on TV now and in the future. What is to say that in the future, similar storylines - even contrived ones (think pro wrestling!) might help address pro and even college football’s weakness in drawing younger viewers today.

The future of sports viewership is indeed bright, as witnessed by the recent announcement that ESPN, FOX Sports, and Warner Bros. Discovery are teaming up on an almost all-inclusive streaming service for sports. Sports is the primary driver of live program viewership on our television sets and mobile devices, and football is positioned to be the dominant driver of that viewership. As such, football will continue to drive not just sports viewership but also the entire structure of the sports media and much of the cultural conversation around sports for years and even decades to come.

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Professor David C. Wyld

About David Wyld

David C. Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld. You can subscribe to his Medium article feed at: https://davidwyld.medium.com/subscribe.

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About the Creator

David Wyld

Professor, Consultant, Doer. Founder/Publisher of The IDEA Publishing (http://www.theideapublishing.com/) & Modern Business Press (http://www.modernbusinesspress.com)

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Comments (2)

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  • Mark Graham4 months ago

    Very informative read. Actually, I like watching soccer and football and believe it or not there are similarities between the two sports. I just wish that football could have just remained a game and not a big business as it is.

  • Alex H Mittelman 4 months ago

    Great work! Very well written!

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