Snoop says footbizzle is dunkadelic.

Kids Who Quit Football Won't Quit the NFL

David Kahn has been general manager of the Indiana Pacers, president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, head of the Oregon Stadium Campaign for Major League Baseball and is currently teaching two courses on sports economics at New York University.
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Football season’s already upon us, like a Seahawks safety blitz, which means it’s again time for the doomsayers to predict that the National Football League’s popularity and TV ratings will eventually wane because of the increasing numbers of concussion-wary parents who won't let their children play youth football.

But this argument fails for two reasons:

  • It doesn't recognize the incredible scope and size of football’s audience in the U.S.
  • It overstates the correlation between playing sports and watching sports -- a correlation that is overstated beyond just football

According to ESPN and the NFL, about half of the 185 million Americans who self-identify as football fans are "avid" fans, as opposed to casual. And of them, about 30 million are women. Do the math: Almost one out of every 10 Americans is an avid female NFL fan. And becoming more avid: According to the league, sales of women’s NFL apparel has tripled between 2010 and 2014. Go to any sports bar on a Sunday afternoon (or Monday night or now Thursday night) and you will see a significant market share of women wearing replica jerseys of their favorite players.

And all this occurred without women playing even a down of organized football during childhood.

Many of these same women are no doubt participating in family decisions about prohibiting their children from playing organized football. I had lunch recently with a friend who said she forbade her 6-foot-1, 220-pound 16-year-old son to play Pop Warner and high school football. He’s playing basketball and lacrosse instead. Yet his love of following football hasn’t been diminished. He is as connected as the next guy (and gal), watching his team every week and playing in fantasy leagues (football’s secret weapon).

Only 4.5 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 play organized tackle football today, according to a 2013 report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, roughly one-quarter the number playing basketball or soccer. That percentage will continue to shrink over time, with the heightened awareness of the long-term effects of playing football, especially as it relates to brain trauma.

But youth football has never been hugely popular -- participation has never crossed the 10 percent barrier. Little League, and now soccer, have always attracted more players. Yet football watching has never been tied to football playing.

Again, under the football-is-doomed argument, interest in U.S. professional soccer should be sky-high, based on the boom in youth soccer these last several decades. Not so. For example, ESPN2’s Aug. 24 match between Seattle and Portland, in prime time on a Sunday night, drew just 209,000 viewers, making it ESPN2’s 46th-highest rated program of the week, a typical showing. Yes, the World Cup was a star -- because of its once-every-four-years, big-event, international feel, much like the Olympics.

Please don’t confuse the argument here. Every effort should be made to make football safer -- so too with baseball, where players can absorb a 95-MPH fastball to their helmeted heads, and hockey, which has fights every night. Some are even calling for men’s tennis to reconsider its devotion to best-of-five-set matches because of health and injury concerns.

But the inherent danger of football is part of what makes it so seductive for the viewing public: young and old, male and female, the vast majority of whom have never played anything more organized than a two-hand touch game in the park.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
David Kahn at dbk4@nyu.edu

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net