This month, network TV returns once more with a shiny slate full of fall debuts. It’s an annual ritual of foreordained failure, with the vast majority of shows unlikely to survive to see a second season.
This winnowing is accepted as the cost of doing cultural business, but, increasingly, the networks themselves have to fear that this is a microcosm of their wholesale fate. Only one form of broadcast programming really matters anymore, economically for the media industry and existentially for American culture: sports, broadly—and the NFL, specifically.
Some of the metrics are obvious: 19 of the 20 highest-rated broadcasts in TV history have been Super Bowls. More than a billion people reportedly tuned in for the 2018 World Cup final.
Other stats are more surprising: At peak, 93 of the top 100 rated shows in a single season were sports programs.
It’s not so much that sports have cannibalized competitors as much as technological conditions have splintered us into social shreds. The defining texture of our information era is fragmentation, where pop culture cocoons offer little collective communion and the “mass” media is but a hollowed-out shell of its former self.
And yet, for believers and media buyers alike, sports still powerfully centralize American life.
In a time-shifted era of DVR and streaming devices, this makes sports an obscenely lucrative product to stock. Consider this: According to one recent TV season upfront pitch, in 1998, a single ad placed on every Emmy-nominated series would have delivered 330 million impressions. Last year, the same placement yielded less than one-tenth of that audience size.
The Big Bang Theory is a far cry from Seinfeld-ian heights. Sports, meanwhile, mostly held serve when faced with the same evaporation of attentiveness over a generation of viewership.
That’s because live sports tell us what time it is, when little else does—technologically or culturally. Their temporal quality explains their social and economic vitality: They can anchor players and fans alike in the present moment and concentrate a vast, shared psychic energy on events unfolding right now. This orients observers, synchronizes schedules and coordinates collectivity.
This “concentrating” power matters not just for media buyers. It matters for those of us seeking to remain human beings. Amidst the asynchronous rhythms that define modern life, many desire mindfulness, individually and co-presence, socially, against the onslaught of distraction and multitasking.
No one ever asks, “What season of the NBA are you on right now?” in the same way you ask about Game of Thrones or Stranger Things. There is no time but the present with sports. They resist being on-demand and instead demand that we show up at specifically scheduled intersections with each other.
Waxing poetic on that experience, a philosopher once wrote, “At moments of high intensity”—think here of Carlton Fisk conjuring the home run fair, David Tyree acrobatically pinning pigskin to helmet—“there seem to be no past, no future. One experiences a complete immersion in the present, absorption in an instantaneous and abundant now.”
If you want Zen focus, go find yourself in a ballgame.
Few cultural practices can keep vast crowds in wondrous suspense and communal immediacy quite like that. Few traditions still summon the pretense that, as the scroll of history unfolds, almost everyone, at least momentarily, seems to be on the same page.
All this propels a domestic market of nearly $70 billion of tickets, broadcast rights, sponsorships and apparel—and a global market worth several hundred billion more.
Yet “times” change. That power and value are by no means guaranteed to endure, even as the networks lean on it more and more with each passing season, like a trick play that’s always worked.
Sports remain, more or less, the last dependable mass medium, but cracks in the foundation spider outward each year. Millennials and Gen Z forgo cable subscriptions and fidget through commercially halting, multihour contests. Super Bowl viewership has wobbled incrementally backward from its spectacular heights.
The forces of fragmentation may well eventually overwhelm the premodern power of sports-time. Where will that leave us, as a culture capable of coordination and collectivity? Perhaps more importantly, when will that leave us?