On today's All Things Considered, Robert Siegel poses an important question to Bob Costas, one of the authors of a new book about the greatest moments in football: With football so popular and beloved and money-making, why is baseball still considered our national pastime? What does football have to do to get a little love?
"Hey, leave baseball something," Costas says of the special, nostalgic language with which we often speak of it. "In every other measurable way, football has surpassed it."
The new book and DVD set 100 Yards Of Glory: The Greatest Moments In NFL History, which Costas co-wrote with his frequent collaborator Joe Garner, aims to choose the greatest moments in the history of a league that has gone from being outshone by both professional baseball and college football to one that can fairly be called our national pastime in all but name.
Costas says that the NFL has some natural advantages over baseball when it comes to winning audiences: with only 16 regular-season games, they're all important. Most are shown on the weekend while people are at home. And, he notes, they all lead to a single championship game scheduled at the most convenient possible time for a gathering. Consider by contrast baseball's flexible series model that might bring the season to an end on any of several nights.
Of course, football also has embraced spectacle to a sometimes remarkable degree, as the two discuss when Siegel asks Costas to compare the home viewing experience with the experience of being in the stadium to see the game. As Costas notes, the huge hanging screens at the stadium in Dallas stretch from one 25-yard line to the other, making them tempting even to people who are there and could just look right over at the game happening live. (If previous screens were jumbotrons, perhaps these are megajumbotrons.)
And they're not just a distraction for the fans in the stadium. That's where we get to Eli Manning's pores.
According to Costas, Manning told him that playing in Dallas in the company of those huge screens requires extra preparation: "I have to be sure I shave when I play in this stadium, because my mother's watching, and she can see every pore on my face."
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
When people around the country say there's something wrong with Washington, something systemic that leads to failure, despite whoever is at the helm, people in Washington know exactly what they mean. The Redskins. This city lives and breathes to the rhythm of its professional football team, and in that respect, it's like much of the country. The thrilling World Series, just completed, had an average television audience of 16.6 million viewers, and that was 19 percent bigger than last year.
But this year's Super Bowl had 111 million TV viewers. So why doesn't pro football get the national pastime label and the gauzy nostalgic treatment as the sentimental bond between fathers and sons? I've been wondering about that while looking at Bob Costa's new book, "100 Yards of Glory: The Greatest Moments in NFL History." Bob Costas, who hails from the justifiably baseball-obsessed city of St. Louis, joins us today from New York. Welcome to the program once again.
BOB COSTAS: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: Does the NFL have a golden age or a pantheon comparable to Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Ted Williams, or is its heyday always this year?
COSTAS: Well, I think if it has a heyday about which people feel nostalgic, it's probably the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, and so there, you're not talking about sepia-tone photographs. You're talking about things we remember if we're old enough from television or which younger fans can access through video. So it doesn't seem to have that sort of misty connection to the past that baseball does. Hey, leave baseball something, leave baseball the pastime designation because in every other measurable way, football has surpassed it.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about the 1958 NFL championship game - there was no Super Bowl yet - the New York Giants, who still played in the city of New York in those days, versus the Baltimore Colts, years before they bolted for Indianapolis in the middle of the night. The game that made the National Football League?
COSTAS: A lot of people say that. It's actually the first game that I remember watching on television, on a black-and-white TV, growing up on Long Island, rooting for the Giants, and Johnny Unitas and the Colts broke their hearts and mine with an overtime victory. And the uniqueness of it then was that that there had never been an overtime game. In fact, many viewers were unaware of what the rules were, that it would be played sudden death: First team to score wins.
And that game had a buzz about it, which kind of set the league in the nation's mind. At that time, unquestionably, baseball was still the national pastime. And for many fans, college football was ahead of pro football. And if there was a turning point, that was certainly one of the turning points. And then as the '60s came along and television became even more and more important and the game televises so well, then I think football began to move up on baseball and eventually move past baseball.
SIEGEL: I want you to explain to people who don't follow professional sports that much how it is that the National Football League manages a degree of equality and manages to make it possible for teams in just about any size city in the country to contend for the championship when professional basketball seems limited to a few big-city franchises. We know about baseball when payrolls deliver success very, very often, not always. What is it - who figured it out, and why is the NFL so successful at that?
COSTAS: Well, if you have to give credit to one man, it would be Pete Rozelle, who as the young commissioner of the league in the early '60s convinced the owners, the Maras and the Halases and people like that in the big markets that they should share equally what became their single greatest source of revenue - network television money - share it equally with the Green Bays and ultimately the Indianapolises and Pittsburghs and whatnot. So while the Brewers did well, for example, this year and won their division, no one thinks that the Milwaukee Brewers are on the same footing as the New York Yankees.
But the Green Bay Packers are at no particular disadvantage relative to the Giants. The single greatest source of revenue - and it's enormous, it's the greatest source in all of American sports - is network TV money, which they divide equally 32 ways. And just as importantly, they have a salary cap and a salary floor. You have to spend the minimum amount, and there's a maximum amount that you cannot exceed.
SIEGEL: I mean, in terms of seats filled and TV ratings, it works. You have to say the NFL has figured out something here, a lesson that has eluded other professional sports.
COSTAS: Well, they have a structure that other sports cannot really mimic. There are only 16 regular season games. So every one is important and special, and they're played generally speaking on Sundays when people are at home and they want to watch television. And then as you get late into the year, it's a time of year when the HUT levels, homes using televisions, tend to be high, people are not on vacation, it gets dark sooner, all those things that contribute to people watching TV.
And then there's a very, very important factor. The Super Bowl is one game for the championship on a predetermined date, on a Sunday. They kick it off at 6 o'clock Eastern time, so nobody is going to go to bed before it's over with. No other sport can compare to that. They have to get to their seventh game. Whereas you could begin planning your Super Bowl party a year in advance, and people do. And those parties and that level of viewership includes a lot of people that don't really follow football. Baseball is a game you have to follow to truly appreciate.
SIEGEL: As you said, football televises great. It's great for instant replay. It's great for different angle shots and all that. When you're calling a game and you're actually watching the game from the booth but also looking at all the television sets around you, do you honestly think it's more satisfying to only be in the stadium, to only be seeing it as a spectator as opposed to watching it on television?
COSTAS: You know, that is a great question. Given the price of tickets, given the fact that in many cities, a good portion of the schedule is played in cold and uncomfortable weather, there are incentives to stay at home, and those incentives include the fact that now for much less money than it would cost for a single season ticket, you can get a terrific home entertainment system, watch the games that precede yours, watch all the highlight shows, get the RedZone package, so you can watch all the scoring plays from around the league with a click of the remote.
So in the new stadiums, what you're finding more and more is that they're taking advantage of technology and trying to provide fans with access to replays, with access to what's going on in other games and trying to make it a more interactive experience even within the stadium. If you go to the new Cowboys stadium, I think that's the biggest Jones Palace in Dallas...
SIEGEL: That is the greatest television set you'll ever see in your life.
COSTAS: Incredible. The TV, the big-screen TV, the middle of it is at the 50, but it actually spreads to either 25-yard line. And even if you have the best seat in the house, Robert, you have to tell yourself, wait a minute, the game is on the field. I can watch it with the naked eye, because your eye is actually drawn to the screen above you. Eli Manning said something to me before the Giants played there last year. He said, I have to be sure I shave when I play in this stadium because my mother is watching, and she can see every pore on my face.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIEGEL: But you're going to put in a good word now for actually going to the stadium and having a ticket, or does TV win this argument?
COSTAS: Well, they keep coming, but I understand the TV part of the argument. But then there's always kind of the communal experience of cheering and going out to the game and making a day or a night of it, and that's still compelling to a lot of people.
SIEGEL: Bob Costas, thanks so much for talking with us today.
COSTAS: You got it, Robert.
SIEGEL: Bob Costas with Joe Gardner has written "100 Yards of Glory: The Greatest Moments in NFL History." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.