**The National Pastime(s) **
About one-third of the nation is expected to tune into the Super Bowl, a gargantuan audience that is nothing new for the National Football League. The 17 most-watched programs in TV history have all been Super Bowl games.
One could be forgiven for thinking the N.F.L. was openly coveting the title of “national pastime” — applied to baseball for the last 150 years and presumably coveted by the N.B.A., as well. While such muscle-flexing seems rather gauche in a time of recession (especially as the N.F.L. was preparing to lay off more than 10 percent of its staff), the question remains: Which is it? Football, baseball or basketball?
Let’s go to the numbers.
The N.F.L. makes what you might call the shock-and-awe case for being the national pastime. Each year, a Harris Interactive survey asks Americans to name their favorite sport. The N.F.L. has won each of the last 43 surveys, often rather handily. Last year, 30 percent of Americans chose pro football as their favorite sport, compared to 15 percent for baseball and just 4 percent for professional basketball. College football claims another 12 percent of hearts and minds (as well as ESPN’s, which recently paid $500 million to carry college football’s Bowl Championship Series from 2011 to 2014). All told, 42 percent of Americans prefer some form of football.
The league goes on to suggest that some 225 million Americans watched an N.F.L. game on TV this season — “nearly 100 million more than the record number of Americans who voted in the 2008 presidential election.” This is true, in part, because while you can watch a football game dozens of times a year, you only get to vote once for president and you have to be at least 18.
(You could expand the argument by pointing out that attendance at college football games reached nearly 49 million in 2007 compared to 32.8 million for college basketball, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Attendance at college baseball games is microscopic by comparison.)
But plenty of people go to Major League Baseball games, which is why, much like the game’s chroniclers, M.L.B. prefers to consider the argument with a wide-angle lens. Asked why baseball still deserves to be called the national pastime, partisans will cite one figure: 78.5 million. That is the attendance total recorded by Major League Baseball for the 2008 regular season. By comparison, the N.F.L.’s regular-season attendance was just over 17 million. Yes, football has a shorter season, but how can you call Major League Baseball less popular if it sells four times as many tickets?
The whole argument reminds me of George Carlin’s Baseball vs. Football routine where he says baseball is rural, football is urban. It’s really funny and, amazingly for Carlin, G-rated.