Countdown to Study Hall: Americans' favorites sports in 2077

Baseball was more than twice as popular in 1948 as it was in 2012. - YouTube

My first book, Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories, will be released in about a week and a half. To celebrate the occasion, I wanted to start some conversations about the topics included in the book itself.

In Study Hall's second chapter, I discuss head injuries and the impact they could have on football moving forward. Here's one passage:

What was arguably the most popular sport in the first half of the 20th century barely makes a ripple on the national consciousness anymore. The game of football is actually responsible for two of the nation’s three most popular sports – the NFL and college football – but there’s nothing saying this always has to be the case. However the sport goes about addressing the issue of head injuries, if enough people feel the changes aren’t sufficient and stop watching, and if enough parents steer their children toward playing other sports, then football’s grasp on America as a whole could change.

Once upon a time, we admired boxers in much the same way as we admire football players today: for their tenacity, for their technical prowess, and for their ability to take a hit and keep trying to move forward. But some combination of corruption and queasiness has changed public admiration for the sport as a whole. Regarding the former, it does bear mentioning that with scandals involving official scorers, trainers, promoters, and basically every title within the sport, boxing has accomplished a level of corruption through the years that makes college football’s issues seem quaint and naïve. And for every person who was turned off by seeing a punch-drunk, Parkinson’s-addled Muhammad Ali (or any other star afflicted the same way) unable to speak, perhaps there were a few who just got annoyed with the corrupt aspects of the sport. That mixed martial arts (MMA) has risen at the same time that boxing has fallen certainly suggests that violence alone isn’t the source of boxing’s downfall.

Still, boxing is a perfect example of how a sport can go from indescribably popular to an afterthought. Major League Baseball is another, less tenuous example. If boxing wasn’t someone’s favorite sport in the first half of the 1900s, baseball was. Now it’s barely holding on to second place, at best.

As Holly Anderson puts it, “Are our kids going to be watching what we’re watching?” It only takes a couple of generations for sentiment to have shifted dramatically. Football lovers probably aren’t ever going to stop loving football, but their grandchildren might not care about it very much.

Now, it might be an exaggeration to say boxing was the most popular sport, even arguably -- baseball likely had a heavy lead through most of the first half of the 20th century -- but it was very popular, and now it's not. Meanwhile, in the last 60-70 years, football has not only caught baseball, it has long since overtaken it.

According to a Gallup Poll, here are the seven most popular sports in 1948:

1. Baseball (39%)
2. Football (17%)
3. Basketball (10%)
4. Horse Racing (4%)
5. Boxing (3%)
6. Hockey (2%)
6. Swimming (2%)

(Swimming!)

According to Gallup again, here's the same list in 1972, along with the shift from 1948.

1. Football (36%, +19%)
2. Baseball (21%, -18%)
3. Basketball (8%, -2%)
4. Bowling (4%, +3%)
5. Wrestling (3%, +2%)
5. Hockey (3%, +1%)
7. Skiing (2%, +2%)

(Bowling!)

(Skiing!)

In 1985, Harris Interactive began a series of similar polling. It separates sports out into college and pro, men's and women's, but we can still see some interesting shifts. Here's the list in 1985:

1. Pro football (24%)
2. Baseball (23%)
3. College Football (10%)
4. Men's pro basketball (6%)
4. Men's college basketball (6%)
6. Men's tennis (5%)
6. Auto racing (5%)
8. Horse racing (4%)
9. Men's soccer (3%)
9. Men's golf (3%)
9. Bowling (3%)

And here's the list in 2012, along with the shift from 1985.

1. Pro football (34%, +10%)
2. Baseball (16%, -7%)
3. College football (11%, +1%)
4. Auto racing (8%, +3%)
5. Men's pro basketball (7%, +1%)
6. Hockey (5%, +3%)
7. Men's college basketball (3%, -3%)
8. Men's tennis (2%, -3%)
8. Men's golf (2%, -1%)
8. Swimming (2%, +2%)
8. Men's soccer (2%, -1%)

If we combine pro and college into a single number, then we could say that football has gone from 22 points behind baseball in 1948, to 15 points ahead in 1972, to 11 points ahead in 1985, to 29 points ahead in 2012. Auto Racing is surging, and basketball, which surged in the 1980s, has sunk back to just above 1970s levels.

Things change, in other words.

So today's discussion question is simple: Football went from 17 percent and second place in 1948 to basically 45 percent and first place in 2012. It more than doubled in popularity in 64 years. So what will this list look like 64 years from now? What do you see changing? Does football falter, either because of its lack of safety or, its safety-induced rules changes (which could make it a less enjoyable sport to many)? And if it does, what sport fills the gap?

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