While the Super Bowl is still must-see TV, the numbers show football is in decline

Even the Super Bowl appears to be vulnerable.
Even the Super Bowl appears to be vulnerable.
Image: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Football is by far America’s favorite sport to watch. Its popularity has made it traditional TV’s last bulwark against the tide of streaming, and its annual pinnacle, the Super Bowl, an indisputable cultural phenomenon.

But the game may be past its peak, as figures show it actually beginning to decline.

An analysis last year by Roger Pielke Jr., a faculty member at the University of Colorado and director of its Sports Governance Center, found various surveys showing participation in youth football—generally ages 6-12—falling for some years now. The same was the case for high school football. In Forbes, Pielke recently noted that youth football saw its apex in 2008, and high school football in 2009.

The issue isn’t football’s alone. Last year, overall participation in high school sports recorded its first drop in 30 years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). But football was the biggest contributor to the decline. It was the sport’s fifth straight year of falling numbers, bringing participation to its lowest point since the 1999-2000 school year.

Viewership, as strong as it remains, is also beginning to register a dip. Attendance of college football games has been falling, and even the Super Bowl appears to be vulnerable. In terms of total US viewers, it reached its highest point in 2015 at 114.4 million. It has fallen since. Last year, 98.2 million viewers tuned in—still a huge number of eyes, but a notable drop.

Football, of course, is still immensely popular. Even with the declines mentioned, TV ratings for the 2019 NFL season grew, and 41 of the 50 most-watched broadcasts of the year were NFL games. The league’s business is in no immediate danger, and young talent will keep coming in from US colleges for the foreseeable future.

But to stave off further declines, some things might need to change. Pielke pointed out in Forbes that there’s no clear consensus on what’s causing the downturn, but one reason does seem clear. Over the past several years, concerns have grown over traumatic brain injuries related to football—namely, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The deaths of former players such as Junior Seau, decisions by active players to retire early, and revelations about the extent of the problem in the sport have shone a spotlight on football’s punishing physical costs.

The NFHS, for one, has said it’s working to address the issue. “While we recognize that the decline in football participation is due, in part, to concerns about the risk of injury, we continue to work with our member state associations, the nation’s high schools and other groups to make the sport as safe as possible,” Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the group’s executive director, said in a statement released with last year’s numbers on falling sports participation. She added that states have enacted their own rules about how much contact athletes endure in practices and before the season begins, and the NFHS is working with groups on teaching proper tackling at the youth level.

The sport, she said, “is as safe as it has ever been.” That may or may not be much comfort to parents and players themselves.