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Why has NFL viewership surged over the decades?

On Sunday, hundreds of millions of people around the world will tune in to the Big Game for sport, ads and Taylor Swift.
Why has NFL viewership surged over the decades?
Posted at 5:28 PM, Feb 07, 2024

Leather helmets in the NFL weren't the sexiest look. Neither was the double-bar face mask. But through every iteration of its existence, the NFL has adapted from gridiron grit to what is today: a sports juggernaut only fitting for the world's biggest superstars

If there's anyone to talk to about the rise of the NFL, it's Jon Kendle, the head archivist at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who knows about the league from its inception in 1920 to its current status as our country's most successful sports empire.

 "I do think it's been orchestrated but I think there's a balance between the organic growth and the league really putting forth a strategy," said Kendle. "I'll always remember Howie Long in his enshrinement speech, he said 'While baseball is America's pastime, football is America's passion.' And I think that really resonates with me because you see a certain type of passion from the fanbase in football that you don't necessarily see in other sports."

We can trace the true rise of the NFL back to the 1960s when TV pushed it to the masses. There were short spurts of intense action followed by breaks that allowed commentators to analyze what just happened, and opine on what might. It's why last year, the NFL made up 93 of the top 100 broadcast programs, according to Sportico.

"Monday Night Football brings sports, and specifically pro football, into primetime. The success of that series was unprecedented and groundbreaking. It brought football to an entirely new audience," said Michael MacCambridge, author of "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation."

Today, there's Sunday football, Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, and — during the late part of the season and playoffs — Saturday football. There are also games in London, Mexico City, Germany, and next year, Brazil. It's taken what used to be a uniquely American sport global, as it appeals to more than just men.

"Forty percent of the NFL's audience any Sunday is female. And that was part in the '70s of this unprecedented move of women into sports, not only as athletes because of Title IX but as coaches, administrators, journalists, and spectators," said MacCambridge. 

On Sunday, that will all be on display as hundreds of millions of people around the world tune in for sport, ads and Taylor Swift.

SEE MORE: Pricey Super Bowl suites forcing families of NFL stars into the stands

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