The Peak of Football?

The New England Patriots-Denver Broncos game last Sunday, featuring Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, was not only the most-watched game of the season (it captured 32% of television viewers), it was also the third-highest regular-season game of the sixteen years that CBS has had the NFL franchise.

And the Patriots won, which meant people here in Salem were happy.

Short-term, I’m hoping the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl.

But long-term, I’m wondering if we’re near the moment of peak popularity for football.

Let me explain.

Contrary Opinion theory maintains that popular perception of anything peaks at the exact moment before it begins to decline—which is obvious when you think about it.

But popular perception at that point is so strong that most observers—many of them participants in the activity/fad/mania—have no idea that their object of enthusiasm can do anything but get more popular!

I see the effect of Contrary Opinion in the stock market regularly; it’s easy to measure there because everything is measured in dollars and cents.

The best time to buy a stock is when it’s cheap, when nobody wants it. And the best time to sell a stock is when it’s expensive, and everybody loves it.

But you can see it in anything.

In fads like hula hoops and trolls

In the popularity of entertainers and fashions

In food crazes—remember fondue?

And in our preference of sporting events, too.

Back in 1940, baseball and boxing were the premier spectator sports in the U.S.

Today, most Americans can’t name a single current boxer.

And as for baseball, World Series viewership peaked in 1978 and 1980 and it’s been steamrolled by football.

The trend is clear in this chart. world-series

Now, there are a variety of reasons to explain the declining popularity of both boxing and baseball.

Boxing fans can blame corruption, an excess of sanctioning bodies and the growing realization that getting hit in the head repeatedly is a bad thing, among others.

Baseball fans can cite the slow pace of the game in an accelerating world, an excess of teams, steroids and competition from football, which makes for better TV.

The reasons are complex and they don’t really matter—at least to me.

What matters is that football is king today, but is extremely unlikely to stay king forever.

So what will bring football down?

Concussions top the list today. Already the NFL has agreed to pay $765 million to ex-players and the NCAA has created a $70 million fund to diagnose current and former athletes.

And parents in many districts are beginning to direct their children to sports with fewer head injuries.

Another factor is that football is big nowhere else in the world.

Sports map of world

Eventually, as participation and viewership decline, the NFL will have to deal with what every past-its-peak organization has to deal with—shrinking money. And that’s not pretty

One wild card, in fact, might be the fact that people are increasingly “cutting the cord” to their television, just as they did to their landline telephone. If that leads to declining revenues, CBS won’t be bidding as much to show NFL games in the future.

Watching it unfold will be interesting, whether the peak comes soon or years down the road.

And if you want to think like a true Contrary Opinion investor, you’ll ask yourself what will be America’s next big sport.

Lacrosse, soccer, kabaddi?

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