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The numbers are in, and they are not a surprise. A lot of people watched last Sunday's Super Bowl. This fact will be cited often to explain the roughly $50 billion in television-rights fees that major networks will pay the NFL over the next decade, the seven-year contract extension signed by commissioner Roger Goodell and the presence of 23 NFL games among the 25 highest-rated shows during the completed fall TV season. Endless keystrokes and bandwidth will be spent repeatedly quantifying the obvious conclusion that the NFL is the most popular sport in America.
The overkill doesn't alter the fundamental truth of the assertion, but it misses a critical reality: The NFL is the most popular sport in America in part because it generates more gambling dollars than any other sport (according to an online Poll Position survey, some 25 million Americans planned to bet money on the Super Bowl); because of the explosion of fantasy football, which engages fans on an entirely different level from straight partisan zealotry; and because the sheer breadth of the NFL's cultural penetration makes some degree of interest unavoidable for all but the most determined nonbelievers.
Yet it's even more than all of this. The NFL is also nearly perfect television programming, and television remains a powerful barometer of societal interests. In Bowling Alone, his 2000 deconstruction of declining social interaction, political scientist Robert Putnam wrote, "The ability of television to create a single national 'water-cooler' culture has shrunk, as fewer and fewer of us watch common programs.... [This] undercuts TV's once-vaunted role in bringing us together." This trend has not changed significantly since: An expanded universe of televised options (Gunsmoke never had to compete against Breaking Bad) has meant smaller audiences for even the most successful shows. Yet the NFL remains destination viewing.
In some ways the NFL's TV success is built on a blissfully simple format. It is imprinted on fans' brains that the NFL plays games on Sunday at 1 and 4:15 p.m. on CBS and Fox (or DirectTV), followed by a night game on NBC, then Monday Night Football on ESPN and, during the second half of the season, a Thursday night game on the NFL Network. The games unfold in a predictable time window, allowing for easy planning. Beyond this, televised NFL coverage is interactive enough to engage its audience in the most technologically advanced ways yet distant enough to keep that audience from experiencing too closely the game's most disturbing realities.
To the first point, NFL football is spectacularly DVR-friendly. Someone recording a game can distill the experience into an hour or less, depending on how much of Tony Siragusa's sideline analysis he wants to hear and how many replays he needs. No other major sport lends itself so easily to the format. Twitter, too, was made for use during NFL games. (At the end of Sunday's game, traffic reached 12,233 tweets per second, a record for an English-language event.) The viewer who eschews his DVR can use the gaps between plays, the commercials, halftime and, of course, replay reviews to unload snark on the world from his iPhone. (Putnam might approve: NFL fans can be viewing alone but still connecting with millions of people elsewhere.) Other sports and Twitter? Baseball is leisurely paced but never actually stops, except between innings. Basketball tweeting inevitably causes you to miss the next Blake Griffin dunk. Hockey? Impossible.
NFL games are almost inhumanly violent. Large, fast athletes generate terrific force and deliver traumatic hits on almost every play. Almost any civilian exposed to NFL hits at close range would be stunned by the brutality. But the genius of the televised NFL is that fans—who, make no mistake, love big hits, whether in Madden or in real games—do not experience the violence viscerally. The technology used to present the games is so advanced that viewers are close enough to see Colt McCoy squeeze his eyes shut just as James Harrison lights him up yet far enough away that the impact isn't real to them. (And the NFL's concussion initiatives, well-intentioned but just scratching the surface of a possibly irresolvable problem, blunt any lingering guilt the fan might feel.)
So the product rolls on. Around some distant corner is the flaw that exposes the NFL's weakness and derails the money train. Maybe it's brain injuries or HGH or some scandal too terrible to imagine. We can't see around that corner. We can only see today, when there is one major sport in the United States, and only one. Now we await the draft.