This explains football’s ability to draw huge audiences at a time when viewership for almost everything else is fragmenting. This  year’s Super Bowl may break last year’s record as the most watched telecast ever in the US. The three most watched broadcasts in the history of US cable TV all took place earlier this month. They were all college football games on ESPN.

Football is also—more than any other sport—perfectly tailored for advertising, since a game famously contains lots of stoppages, providing ample opportunities for commercial breaks. And blue-chip advertisers can’t get enough of it. In September, when there was serious talk of a consumer boycott of the NFL for its handling of the Ray Rice case, brewing giant Anheuser-Busch sounded a warning to the league. “We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code,” it said. Other sponsors like Pepsi and McDonald’s voiced similar concerns.

But no-one ceased advertising. This Sunday, the SuperBowl will attract 15 first-time advertisers, the most since 2000. And 30- and 60-second ad spots will command record rates.

The court of popular opinion

This chart probably explains why the advertisers didn’t bolt.

The consumer perception of the NFL plummeted as the Ray Rice scandal took hold, research from YouGov, a market-research agency, shows. But as the season wore on, people seemed to forget or blank out the off-field drama and started to focus on the games again. After a few classic playoff matches, the NFL’s perception had rebounded sharply (although YouGov points out, it’s well below where it was this time a year ago).

Football has become so important to the TV industry and so perfect a vehicle for advertisers that you get the feeling that it would take something truly, unfathomably catastrophic for it to to collapse. Michael Lewis, an associate professor of marketing at Emory University, compares America’s fervent support for football to partisan politics. “Look at people who identify as Republicans or Democrats and how they react to a scandal within their own party,” he tells Quartz. “There are some folks for the current president, it doesn’t matter what he does, Obama is going to be their guy. It’s exactly what would have happened with George Bush a decade ago.”

According to Lewis, the NFLs brand is almost unbreakable. But not completely.  ”I think the only way the NFL could find itself in a problem is if something happened to the on-field product,” he says. “Something meaningful, a corruption of the game.” An endemic match-fixing problem, or widespread performance-enhancing drug abuse, perhaps.

Derek Thompson, from our sister site The Atlantic, has a completely unscientific, yet still compelling alternative theory about what might be going on. He thinks the league might be accumulating invisible damage, which at some point, might cause it to collapse. “You can’t see football’s moral disintegration if you just look at the numbers,” he recently wrote. “But that doesn’t prove that fans don’t care. Maybe they’re just starting to think.”

The endgame

American football has experienced at least one serious existential crisis before. In 1905, amid repeated deaths and rising unrest over player safety, then president Teddy Roosevelt convened a summit at the White House to make it safer. But those were different days, when government was more trusted. It’s hard to imagine today’s administrations intervening in something that’s both a national pastime and a massive industry.

It seems blindingly obvious to an outsider like me (I did not grow up in the US) that the very equipment designed to protect players—helmets—are a big part of the on-field violence problem. They give players a false sense of security, and are even used as weapons (as players charge into each other head first, rather than tackle with arms and shoulders). There are signs that this might someday be addressed: The NFL has been looking at ways to make helmets more shock-absorbent, and various researchers are looking at other ways to make them safer. Yet if Lewis’s analogy with partisan politics is correct, then maybe that won’t happen. Doing so might be the NFL equivalent of a Republican raising taxes.

If safety doesn’t improve, one way football could decline is if both pro and college football are swamped by lawsuits. Eventually, the game could become uninsurable, and the economics will no longer stack up. (This scenario was explored by the economists Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen for Grantland in 2009). Or perhaps it will become “ghettoized”, as Gladwell put it, advertisers will retreat, and it will all come crashing down. Maybe the glaring lack of appeal of football outside of the US will prove its Achilles heel; or maybe, as Mark Cuban, the media magnate and basketball team owner has suggested, over-saturation in the US will be its undoing.


In any case, if like millions of Americans, you tune into NBC on Sunday evening to watch the big game, to see Katy Perry performing during halftime, or even for the commercials, the idea that football could fall off the map anytime soon will seem far-fetched, at best.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.