Why Is Football Popular Only In The US?

02.5.2019 / NEWSLETTER
Why Is Football Popular Only In The US?

I walked into a bar in Mexico City. There were a few people scattered around at the tables, but the bar was empty.

I was thinking about football, now that the season had ended. I’d grown up in New Hampshire and lived in Boston back when the Patriots never won a title. Things had changed!

I ordered a beer.

I glanced at the mirror. A guy stared back at me. He raised his mug. “Here’s to the Super Bowl champions.” He smiled “My name’s Juan.”

“I’m John. Glad to meet you.” I couldn’t help adding, “I’m from New England. We’re happy about the Super Bowl.”

“Yeah. I know. Congratulations. Sixth time, right?” He lowered his mug. “Excuse the abruptness and I hope this isn’t rude, but I got to ask: Why is American football so popular in the US, unlike here in Mexico or anywhere else in the world?”

“I’ve wondered about that, Juan. I think it’s because a football team is a microcosm of the corporation.”

“Oh, you mean, John, that corporations make a lot of money off the business of football – the ads, Coke sales, Viagra, and all that other stuff they sell?”

“That’s true, but not exactly what I had in mind, Juan.”

I watched him in the mirror as he sipped his beer.

“You see,” I said, anticipating his question. “The team has a CEO – the quarterback – who gets lots of information from his advisors on the sidelines, including the coach who is sort of like the chairman of the board. Then the quarterback makes the decisions about what to do next.”

“Doesn’t he make more money than anyone else?”

“Exactly. Like the CEO.”

“And he gets the fame – if the team wins.”

“True again.”

He cocked his head. “I’ve noticed that the quarterback gets to touch the ball every play – and he’s the only one who does, other than an assistant who bends over and hands or throws the ball to the quarterback under his butt and between his legs.” He laughed. “A very strange position, very funny picture indeed!”

“Yeah,” I admitted. “Not sure why they do it that way, except the center – the guy who hands the ball back between his legs – is like a bodyguard to the quarterback.” I paused. In the mirror, his eyes held mine. “But there are these other guys – running backs, receivers. . . The quarterback sometimes hands or throws the ball to them. He tells them where they have to go and what they have to do to get the ball, but once they have it, they can make a few decisions – fake right, run left, or fake left, run right, that sort of thing.”

“Like vice presidents.”

“Hmmm. . .” I saw his point. “Nice analogy.”

“And what about all the other players, John? Those guys who bash heads and keep hitting each other.”

“The line.” I motioned for the bartender to bring our bill. There was no one else in the mirror. Just him.

“Yes, the line. They never even touch the football, do they?

“In general, Juan, they don’t. Although sometimes the CEO or one of those vice presidents drops the ball, and then the men on the line can grab it or fall on it.”

He scratched his head. “No other game like that, is there? In our futbol, what you call soccer – everyone gets the ball and decides what to do with it. Same with basketball, volleyball, baseball, tennis, hockey – you name it.” He stared at me through the mirror. “What about girls?”

“You mean. . .”

“Do they play American football?”

“A few do, but not professionally.” I searched my brain. “Not even in high school or college, as far as I know.”

“Wow, John. So, it is a very macho sport? Sexist.”

“I suppose you could say that.”

“Strange, especially at this time with so much talk about gender equality and sexual abuse.” He shook his head at the mirror. “American football is a unique sport.” He lifted his mug. “I think you’re right: A football team is modelled after the corporation.”

“Or perhaps,” I said as I finished my beer. “It’s the other way around.”

He shrugged in the mirror. I reached into my pocket and watched him hand my money to the bartender. We walked away from the bar, through the open doorway, and toward a group of boys and girls who were kicking a soccer ball around in the street outside.

The Super Bowl That Trump’s America Deserves

I’m not really sure why they’re bothering with a Super Bowl this year. Sure, a bunch of people will make a boatload of money, tens of millions of us will reflexively tune in and we’ll find rare common ground over how cheesy the halftime show is. But are we believers anymore? Will we really see the winner as the winner — or just as the charmed survivor of a grossly tarnished process? Be it the New England Patriots or the Los Angeles Rams, the team will have an asterisk after its name. And that asterisk is a big fat sign of the times.

I’m referring, of course, to the miserable officiating that’s arguably the reason the Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs and the Rams beat the New Orleans Saints, leading to the matchup in this coming Sunday’s season-finale game. The Rams in particular were blessed by the referees, who failed to note and penalize a glaring case of pass interference in the climactic minutes. I needn’t describe what happened. Footage of it has been replayed as extensively and analyzed as exhaustively as the Zapruder film.

And it has prompted an intensity of protest, a magnitude of soul searching and a depth of cynicism that go well beyond the crime in question. That’s where the feelings about the Super Bowl and the mood of America converge.

We’re still reeling from a presidential election that was colored if not corrupted by unfair advantages, undue meddling and disrespected rules, and here we have a Super Bowl that’s colored if not corrupted by unfair advantages, undue meddling and disrespected rules. Many fans are rejecting its legitimacy — sound familiar? There are conspiracy theories afoot.

Americans are so down on, and distrustful of, major institutions and authorities that we’re primed to declare their fraudulence, and the National Football League and the Super Bowl are on the receiving end of that. They’re not fresh targets, not by any stretch. But this time we’ve lost all sense of perspective.

.. The missed pass-interference call in the clash between the Rams and Saints was certainly egregious, but every football game is a compendium of good and bad breaks; luck is always a factor and often the deciding one. The Saints had home-field advantage, and their fans created enough noise to addle and even paralyze the Rams on offense. The Saints also made errors galore, blowing the possibility of a lead too commanding to be erased by poor officiating. On a recent episode of his podcast, the sports commentator Bill Simmons methodically broke down the game en route to this conclusion: “I really thought the Rams were better.” He added that “if that’s a neutral field, I think the Rams win.”

That the Rams did win, with an assist from somnambulistic referees, has not gone over well in New Orleans. The Louisiana governor wrote a letterof condemnation to N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell. The New Orleans City Council is considering a formal resolution declaring the outcome an “injustice” and demanding that the N.F.L. thoroughly review its rules. One of Louisiana’s senators has called for a congressional hearing on the matter.

Several Saints ticket holders have filed lawsuits against the N.F.L., variously claiming that they have endured mental anguish, lost the enjoyment of life and been defrauded by the league. A movement in New Orleans to boycott the Super Bowl involves the staging of competing events, vows by many bars not to show the game and pledges by many other bars to show, instead, the 2010 Super Bowl, in which the Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts.

Planet Money: Atlanta Falcons: Hot Dog Hail Mary

Overpriced stadium food is standard at big-time sporting events. If you get hungry, expect to fork over $7 for a hot dog. It’s annoying. It’s also simple economics: Inside a stadium, there’s no competition bringing prices down, so prices stay high. Sports fans are trapped in a captive market.

That’s usually the end of the story. But the Atlanta Falcons are trying something different. They’ve lowered prices. It could change the way stadium economics works.

Today on the show: We send two reporters down to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to eat their way through a radical experiment.