WILL FOOTBALL FOLLOW THE PATH OF HORSE RACING?

Last Sunday’s Super Bowl was a blockbuster event that transcended the lopsided game on the playing field. For example, Times Square the night before resembled a New Year’s Eve celebration.

Horse racing was at one time more watched than professional football, second only to Major League Baseball. A recent poll showed that the National Football League is by far and away the most popular sport in the United States with Major League Baseball a distant second and horse racing not even on the charts.

The view here is that horse racing gradually lost popularity for multiple reasons, such as the lack of television exposure in the early days of the medium and the proliferation of gambling competition. Another prominent reason is that as the 20th century transpired, Americans grew further and further from their agrarian roots and their appreciation for the horse waned.

As difficult as it may be to fathom from looking at the 2014 Super Bowl performance metrics, a similar fate could be in store for football.

When parents were surveyed in 2014 about whether they would want their sons to play organized football, about 46% said no. Football insiders like Brett Favre, Joe Namath, and Tom Brady’s father have lamented the risks that playing football entail.

In fact, there has been a decline in participation by boys in every major team sport, which suggests that, in addition to the fear of injury and mounting medical evidence of the deleterious effects of participating in football in particular, a secular cultural change may be underway.

The NFL is awaiting court approval to compensate a plethora of its former players for injuries sustained that ostensibly led to immobility and dementia. With this precedent, it is not hard to imagine that there will be more and more lawsuits lodged against helmet makers, colleges and universities, and local school boards for alleged damages to past players. Indeed, at least one law firm is aggressively advertising on television for clients in all sports.

The combination of parents’ growing objections to their sons playing football and more lawsuits is almost certain to spell trouble down the line for football.

If you are skeptical about this eventuality, go back to the halcyon days of horse racing—at a time when the sport was major news and many of the best sportswriters knew the game inside out; or the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race was widely anticipated by the general public; or Man o’ War’s funeral was broadcast nationally on radio. Contemplate how ludicrous it would have been then to predict that horse racing would be a minor sport by the turn of the 21st century.

The best of marketing cannot reverse secular movements like the decline of interest in horse racing, boxing, or possibly football. Some of the NFL playoff games in 2014 encountered fan resistance in selling out and student turnout at a number of the premier college football programs in 2013 decreased. These may be early indicators of where football is heading.

ESPN conducted an online poll earlier this week regarding the following question: “If you had equal talent in both sports [football and baseball], which would you pursue professionally? Over 34,000 people answered and 65% said baseball and 35% indicated football. Baseball was the preferred sport in all 50 states. Some of this, though certainly not all, had to be due to the longevity factor in baseball, a sport much kinder to the human body.

Think that the NFL is immune to a significant downward change in its fabulous and lucrative fortunes? Consider the slow but sure troubled journey of horse racing as a case in point.

Copyright © 2014 Horse Racing Business

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