I’ve noticed in a few places that even despite on-field controversies (concussions) and off-field controversies (domestic violence and anything to do with commissioner Roger Goodell), people are still watching football more football than. . . really anything else on television. There are a few running theories as to why that might be the case (we are by nature, bloodthirsty, or perhaps we’re just hypocrites), but I want to posit what I believe is the most significant reason for this ostensibly strange trend, and that is time. The way time is important in football’s continuing success manifests itself in three ways: time between games, time of the year, and time of play. All sports can be fun to watch. Players in all games display amazing athleticism or strategy, offer hilarious bloopers or controversial calls, and present us with compelling story lines. On the contrary, football, like all sports, can be boring, with none of the above. I don’t think that any sport is inherently more fun to watch than any other sport (at least in the case of the 5 biggest team sports—football, basketball, soccer, baseball, and hockey) as long as there is good play and something at stake. But football has the advantage of time.
Time Between Games
Most importantly for football’s success is time between games. I heard Mike Pesca offer this theory on a podcast once and I’m surprised I haven’t heard it sense by him or anyone else. The fact that football teams play only once a week and on weekends make following them way easier, makes fantasy football easier to participate in, and makes it easier to organize viewing parties. If I want to watch my favourite basketball, baseball, or hockey team play with some friends, we have to look up what day on which they’re playing and decide which game fits our schedule. But the vast majority of my favourite football team’s games will be played on Sunday afternoon. My friends and I can have a standing date to meet for lunch at a particular sports bar on Sundays to watch football.
Most basketball teams play on Friday night, but not all of them. Also, considering the fact that the Dallas Mavericks (my favourite basketball team) plays 2 or 3 other games during the week, the “necessity” of watching that Friday night game is diminished. Which brings me to my second point.
Time of the Year
Not only do basketball teams play 3 or 4 games a week, they also play, if they’re not good, 6 months of the year or, if they’re really good, 9 months of the year. The playoffs in basketball and hockey are happening in the nicest months of the year to be outside. Also, along with baseball, regular season games in these sports are just not that important compared to a single football game. Football only has a 4 month regular season with one game a week. Each game is important. Also, the most important of those games are during the part of the year where it is best to be indoors. The days are short and it’s cold. The playoffs are single elimination in January. I can afford to miss a couple NBA or NHL playoff games if the series isn’t on the line and the weather’s nice. But if the Cowboys lose this Sunday, they are out of the playoffs. Also, what else am I going to do on a Sunday in January? I might as well get together with some friends and watch the game.
Time of Play
When I get together with my friends to watch the football game, the best thing about it is how much time there is to do something else. The average football game has 11 minutes of play over the course of 3 hours. That’s a lot of time to tell stories, eat, drink, and just hang out. A few years ago, I was teaching a J-term course on a subject I’d never taught before. I spent a crazy amount of time prepping for each class. I found, however, that I could watch a football game rather comfortably while reading between the whistle calling each play dead and the snap of the ball on the next play. My concentration was hindered a little, but not nearly as much as it would be watching any other sport. Even baseball has way less time between pitches. There are not nearly as many replays of basketball plays as there are football plays because the action doesn’t stop enough. Soccer doesn’t even have commercial breaks or timeouts. The fact is, not much happens during a football game, which makes it quite conducive to multitasking.
We live in a multitasking age. I listen to podcasts (often on sports) while doing chores. I always bring a book with me wherever I go in case there is time to read. How much do people talk about how much people are looking at their phones, texting friends? All of this can be done much easier during a football game than any other sporting event (even golf, which has so much “action” going on simultaneously that watching a tournament on TV really means watching a fraction of the number of shots since the producers switch immediately from one shot to another).
And so football, even in a generation that has, depending on who is describing it, become aware of the dangers of head injuries or has become soft, is the perfect sport for this generation of multitaskers. There is so much more time between football games, football seasons, and football plays, that football is just easier to pay attention to.