When the first Harris Poll asking Americans what their favorite sport was came out in 1985, it was a neck-and-neck fight between the NFL and Major League Baseball (the poll differentiates college vs. pro as separate “sports”).
The NFL was on top, with 24 percent of respondents saying they preferred that league. MLB was right behind at 23 percent.
That’s a snapshot of where things stood in the sports pecking order almost three decades ago … and a reminder of just how much has changed.
The latest Harris Poll came out recently. While the NFL and MLB still rank 1-2, the gap is startlingly wider. A full 35 percent of Americans call the NFL their favorite sport now; 14 percent say MLB.
From pretty much a dead heat to a 2.5-to-1 advantage. What happened?
Certainly, numerous factors are in play. Our society, as a whole, seems to have shifted to the point that a hard-hitting sport like football more accurately reflects the national psyche, while baseball was the pastime of choice in milder times. And there’s no denying the impact of fantasy football and the NFL draft, which help keep fans wrapped up in the game year-round.
But we’d say the primary factor is the perception the NFL has created that there is perpetual action and something is always about to happen, when NFL games actually have less action and last longer than MLB games.
Certainly baseball could benefit by speeding itself up. The average length of games has famously climbed from around 2 hours, 30 minutes in the 1970s to almost 3 hours now. Hitters stepping in and out of the batter’s box to adjust gloves, pitchers stalking around the mound — it can be maddening.
But while many complain about the steady climb in baseball game lengths, nobody seems to gripe about NFL games — which were about 2 hours 59 minutes in 1992, according to Elias, and were averaging a little more than 3:10 late in the 2013 season, according to sportsonearth.com.
Also, those who complain about inactivity during MLB games should note: Studies show there is 18 minutes of actual action during a baseball game … and just 11 minutes of action during an NFL game.
You could argue that both are colossal wastes of time (they’re not if you love sports, but still). The larger point is this: The NFL has convinced us that something is always happening, even though it isn’t. So baseball, the sport that is shorter and has more action, gets labeled as boring, while football, the sport that is longer and has less action, gets tagged as exciting.