Inside the numbers: Football

Posted: Feb 01, 2005 12:00 AM

Why does the Super Bowl so captivate America's attention? With the game coming up this weekend in Jacksonville, Fla., it might be worthwhile to share some thoughts on the matter with readers across the nation.

 Start with pro football itself. Our InsiderAdvantage national survey from last August made it clear that Americans prefer football over any other professional sport, and by a wide margin.

 Let me preface the poll's finding by making due apologies to a fellow national columnist of much greater talent and wisdom than I -- George Will. Being a baseball junkie, he will doubtless be disappointed with the results. We asked: Which professional spectator sport do you most enjoy watching?

 Football     37 percent
 Baseball     17 percent
 Basketball     14 percent
 Some Other Sport   11 percent
 NASCAR      6 percent
 Ice Hockey     5 percent
 Don't know/Undecided  10 percent

 The InsiderAdvantage national survey was conducted Aug. 13-15, 2004, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 Why the love for football? Look at the NFL. Under the leadership of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the league has reached a level of great stability as a business enterprise. And yet, through a system that encourages great parity among teams, the results from week to week and year to year have become unpredictable.

 Last year's losing Atlanta Falcons this year raced to the NFC Championship. That one-year turnabout is a credit to a league whose structure encourages strong team owners and good management to bounce back quickly.

 Even so, the Super Bowl seems consistently to be contested by the two strongest teams from each conference. No one could argue that the New England Patriots or the Philadelphia Eagles don't deserve to play in Sunday's game.

 Our survey goes on to tell us a bit more about why pro football is the nation's runaway favorite sport. For example, when it came to the politics of fans, our survey showed that Republicans were far more likely to say that baseball was their first choice for viewing, while football drew a fairly equal number of Democrats and Republicans. So there, George W. (a former owner of the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball team), you can take some solace in the fact that the GOP seems to favor baseball. But as far as those who call themselves moderates, no sport came close to pro football.

 The NFL made a clean sweep of the age brackets, too, from the 18-to-34 year-olds all the way to retirees. In other words, there's a good reason why a TV commercial spot during the Super Bowl commands such a high-dollar premium.

 Then there are the comparisons to other major professional sports. I've beaten up enough lately on the thuggery that infests the NBA. (My column on the topic generated hundreds of e-mails from across the country, overwhelmingly in agreement that the players seem to have a "fans-be-damned" attitude.)

 There's baseball, where the benign neglect of an owner/commissioner has allowed a handful of teams to dominate in an annual playing season that lasts too long for its own good.

 And there is ice hockey. Check that, there was ice hockey. The sport is inactive this year, and few have even missed it.

 Only NASCAR appears to be gaining any traction with the public.

 If anyone doubts the true popularity of the NFL, they need only look to the passion of the sometimes unruly, occasionally coarse, but truly devoted Philadelphia Eagles partisans. Adding to their "Rocky" underdog theme this year will be the added drama of a last-minute replacement player who was working a construction job just a few weeks ago. Only in the NFL can such drama be found.

 Of course, there's the small matter of the many Super Bowl blowouts. Sometimes the genius of the system breaks down once the golden game is played. Maybe the underdog Eagles can take inspiration from the City of Jacksonville. This north Florida town was long also considered not to be a "contender" for an event such as this. Like the game's host city, maybe the Eagles can surpass expectations and make this a game to remember.

 And while on the all-American theme of underdogs, this column space will take a look at underdogs of all types -- from sports to politics -- in Saturday's Florida Times-Union. We'll reveal the results of our national InsiderAdvantage "Super Poll." From football fans to political junkies, this will be one you won't want to miss.