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How Massive The NFL Really Is, In 4 Charts

The NFL has had quite an eventful year. In fact, the 2022 season has been characterized by a series of controversies that, when taken together, seem like a microcosm of the criticisms and existential threats facing the league as a whole. In just the past year, there have been major stories centered around how the NFL handles (or downplays) sexual assault allegations against its star players, scary concussions, the physical brutality of the sport and the league’s racial regressiveness — especially in disadvantaging Black coaches in a predominantly Black league. 

But while it might be reasonable to expect the league to take a hit from this slew of negative attention, the NFL seems to have a Teflon-like ability to keep scandals from sticking. Fans are still watching games in droves despite all the controversies, even giving the league its highest-rated regular-season game on record this Thanksgiving. So, with the Super Bowl just around the corner, we wanted to take a few different looks at just how massive the NFL really is — and why rumors of its decline continue to be greatly exaggerated.

First, take the Big Game itself. This Sunday, tens of millions of Americans will tune in as the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. Every year, the Super Bowl is by far the biggest cultural event in America — or, maybe more accurately, it is the defining event for American culture. While similar events grapple with fractured media environments and the rise of streaming, millions more Americans still turn on their TVs and sit down on their couch with friends or seven-layer dip (or both) to watch the Super Bowl than any other major sports championship in the country.

But of course, football’s grip on American sports fandom expands well beyond just watching the Super Bowl. More generally, Gallup has been asking Americans about their favorite sport to watch since 19371 — and for the past half-century, American sports fans have come to a pretty clear consensus: Football is king. Football first claimed the top spot from baseball in 1972, and nothing has come close to it ever since. Meanwhile, baseball is on a precipitous decline — only 9 percent of all respondents said it was their favorite sport in 2017, the lowest total since Gallup first asked the question 80 years earlier.

We also can see football’s seemingly unimpeachable position as America’s favorite sport in how many fans it is able to draw to each game. Put simply, NFL games are massively bigger spectacles than contests in any other American sport, with thousands more people showing up to NFL stadiums during football season than we see at MLB, NBA or NHL games.

The Washington Commanders drew the smallest crowds in the NFL in 2022 — with just over 58,000 fans showing up to the average game at FedEx Field — while the Los Angeles Dodgers had the biggest games of any team outside the NFL in the same year. Their games averaged more than 10,000 fewer fans than the Commanders’. Yes, some of this is a function of venue capacity — no basketball or hockey arena can contain even 35 percent as many fans as the NFL’s smallest stadium (Soldier Field in Chicago) — as well as the NFL’s once-a-week business model, which stands in contrast with other leagues’ more daily scheduling rhythms. But even so, the NFL draws big enough crowds to justify massive stadiums and make its once-a-week model worth it. Simply put, the sheer drawing power of pro football is undeniable.

And these unencumbered decades of unwavering attention and butts-in-seats have helped NFL franchises themselves grow to enormous proportions, too. Of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world according to Forbes’ 2022 rankings, 30 are NFL teams.2 The Dallas Cowboys top the list as the most valuable team in the world, with an estimated worth around $8 billion — $1.6 billion higher than the second-ranked New England Patriots. Combined, all the NFL teams on the list are worth a staggering $136.8 billion.

Any way you slice it, the NFL is simply America’s No. 1 obsession. And while it does face some real existential threats (including reports of declining popularity among the next generation of would-be fans), it’s still a behemoth that dominates America’s culture and economy. The NFL is so far out ahead of any other sport that a competitor usurping its title as America’s favorite league probably won’t happen for decades — if at all.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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  1. Except in 1997, when they were asked, “What is your favorite sport to follow?”

  2. Among the league’s 32 franchises, only the Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions failed to crack the top 50.

Ryan Best was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.


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