Burke: Popularity of the NFL won’t last forever

The NFL is riding high with players like Tom Brady as its superstars. The only question now is how long will the run last? Credit: Getty Images
The NFL is riding high with players like Tom Brady as its superstars. The only question now is how long will the run last? Credit: Getty Images

Came to this realization the other day: every “major” professional sport but the NFL is a “niche sport.”

Consider this. The first NFL preseason (repeat, preseason – as in, doesn’t count) game broadcast on national TV this year had better national ratings than this year’s Stanley Cup Final (average over six games), this year’s NBA Western Conference Finals and last year’s World Series games.

Roger Goodell’s gravy train has zero lumps and isn’t scheduled to spill anytime soon. And we should enjoy it this fall and every fall for the foreseeable future. It remains the perfect TV sport and it is woven in our American fiber. It long ago overtook baseball as America’s pastime.

But 25 years from now? Things may be a tad different.

Fewer and fewer children are playing football because of its dangerous nature. The concussion crisis has been well-documented. But there are other, less discussed issues that could slowly but surely lower the unbridled popularity of Goodell’s league.

The “pink elephant in the room,” as Alex Rodriguez would say, is that the NFL should run into major issues when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs.

Yes, we have already seen performance-enhancing issues in the NFL, but they have merely been blips on the ESPN bottom line scroll, enraging few. When will the masses become enraged? Likely when a top-line quarterback gets busted or when a superstar player on a Super Bowl winner gets brought down.

Human growth hormone (HGH) use in the NFL is “rampant,” according to a May report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The story quoted an anonymous NFC starter that said at least 10-15 players on each NFL team use HGH. The league and the NFLPA are moving disturbingly slow in developing a complete HGH testing method. In fact they are just now getting around to agreeing on plans for a “population study,” with full-blown HGH testing eventually coming “down the road.”

When the testing is finally in place, there are sure to be major violators and major suspensions. How quickly will the public forgive?

But the main reason as to why it’s wholly unlikely that the NFL will still be ruler of the sports universe in 2038 is that nothing lasts forever. Had you told a boxing fan in the late 1960s, at the height of Muhammad Ali’s popularity, that boxing would be less popular than basketball, hockey, soccer and curling (what’s curling!?) in 2013, that person would have put his cigarette out on you in disgust. At the time, boxing, horse racing and baseball were king. Today, two of the three are lucky to get 30 seconds of play on SportsCenter. The other is just a niche sport, battling it out with the NBA and NHL for second place.

Follow Metro Boston sports editor and columnist Matt Burke on Twitter @BurkeMetroBOS


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