It’s the time of year for that oddest subgenre of sportswriting, the “Football vs. Baseball” column. Pro football, of course, always wins in these debates, largely because they’re argued along the only terms that sportswriters know: television ratings.
First out of the gate is David Steele on AOL Fanhouse yesterday. It’s classic because it contains all the usual nonsense arguments, but Steele manages to add a couple of more that are even nuttier.
“The NFL is pushing baseball off the front page,” he writes, “replacing it as the lead story, dominating it in clicks, tweets, commentary. Every tangible and intangible measure of interest.”
Steele doesn’t tell us how he knows what the “intangible” interests are. For that matter, he doesn’t tell us how he knows how many clicks, tweets, etc. are sent on football or baseball matters. Here’s one of the yardsticks that he does mention:
Isn’t it a huge deal that the Phillies added even more punch to a roster that’s running away from the rest of the National League [by acquiring Houston’s Hunter Pence] . . .? BUT HOW ABOUT THE GREATER AMOUNT OF INK SURROUNDING DEFENSIVE BACK NNAMDI ASOMUGHA GOING TO THE EAGLES? HOW DID THEY PULL THAT OFF? (Emphasis Steele’s.)
Whoa, hold on. The reasons Asomugha going to the Eagles was such a big story are that (a) he was regarded as the best free agent in the NFL and (b) both New York teams were trying desperately to sign him. He was even the lead back page story of the New York tabloids after he went to Philadelphia.
And there’s yet another reason: Football fans are frantic for news since the lockout was finally lifted. It’s purely accidental that the NFL’s free agent season collided with baseball’s.
But all of this is beside the point. The “football is beating baseball” argument is mostly lazy writing and sloppy thinking. The NFL is a national interest where fans in Dallas, Kansas City, Miami or wherever are concerned about whether or not the Jets or Eagles win the battle for a player like Asomugha — even if they didn’t know his name two days before the deal was made.
That’s the nature of pro football. At least 95 percent of NFL fans have never seen their favorite team — or any other team — in person. I’m not pulling that figure out of a hat. A couple of years ago George Will, when he served on baseball’s Blue Ribbon Panel, told me they conducted a survey indicating that the number of football fans who only knew the game from their living room sofa was in the mid-to-high nineties.
In other words, following football is a TV thing — the football season is just another long running mini-series. With baseball it’s the opposite: Many fans go to a game or games over the course of the season and use TV, radio or the internet to keep up with their favorite clubs. (That some clubs, like the Yankees, are pricing out their working-class fans is an ugly fact and another issue.)
The football/baseball issue has always been largely bullshit anyway, one created by sportswriters to give them something to write about every year about this time. First, and you’d think this would be obvious but it never is: There is no conflict. The seasons don’t intersect by that much.
Second — and you’d think they would have noticed this, too — but football is a once-a- week event for just sixteen regular season Sundays. There’s very little conflict between watching your favorite team on Sunday — or, once in a while, Thursday or Monday nights — and still following your baseball team (or basketball or hockey) the rest of the time. Or even on the same day.
Which brings us to another point: Why do sportswriters seem to think that football and baseball fans are some kind of separate breeds? Fans of one sport are invariably fans of the other. What makes sportswriters think that fans feel compelled to choose between the two? Most fans choose to have both.
Why these simple truths seem to elude writers like David Steele is baffling. No one, I think, is dim enough to suggest that pro football is more popular than college football because ratings for NFL playoff games are higher than the ratings for Alabama vs. Tennessee, Michigan vs. Ohio State, or UCLA vs. Southern Cal. It’s assumed that those rivalries are the kings in their respective areas and generate at least substantial interest in other parts of the country. But in their areas, those college teams and those rivalries are dominant, drawing much more local interest than the Giants vs. Cowboys or Raiders vs. Chiefs.
If you must have a pro football vs. baseball argument, let’s try framing it another way. Don’t talk to me about clicks and tweets or even TV ratings. Let’s ask fans in New England whether they care more about the Red Sox winning the World Series or the Patriots winning the Super Bowl. And then let’s ask New York fans a similar questions about the Yankees (or Mets, too, I guess) vs. the Giants or Jets.
You might get some arguments on a couple of these, but I guarantee that if you ask Philadelphia fans if they would choose having the Phillies win the World Series or the Eagles win the Super Bowl, you’d be met with looks of astonishment and replies of “Are you kidding?”