American football has grown in popularity because of its relatively short season compared to other sports along with the unique combination of size, strength, and athleticism required by its players. In more recent years, the growth of fantasy football and the legalization of sports betting in many states has encouraged this growing popularity and made NFL games must-watch events.
I’m David, and I count myself as one of the almost 100 million people that tune into the Super Bowl every year. I’ve been following professional football since I was eight, living and dying with each disappointment my beloved Minnesota Vikings have thrown my way.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the factors that have encouraged the growth of this fascinating sport from the unique type of athlete the game requires to the advent of sports betting and fantasy formats that give all of us an additional emotional investment when we sit down on our couches every Sunday.
- Fewer games and the added importance of each match-up heighten the emotional stakes and value of individual contests.
- Fantasy sports and gambling add additional emotional weight to games which encourage people to tune in even if their favorite team isn’t playing.
- The NFL has come to dominate live TV ratings, with the eight most-watched events in 2022 being NFL games.
What Makes Football So Popular?
What makes football so popular varies from person to person. Some are fanatically invested in their team’s success, while others appreciate it just for entertainment. But a growing number of people watch football solely to cheer for their fantasy teams or betting slips. We’ll highlight some of the main reasons people love football below.
Less is More
Other popular sports in the U.S. have long seasons. Major League Baseball seasons encompass 162 games. The NBA season is 82 games long, but the playoffs can run for six weeks or more thanks to the league allowing 16 teams into the bracket with each series being a best of seven.
By comparison, the NFL season is just a blink of an eye, even with the addition of a 17th regular season game. While baseball teams play every day and NBA franchises take the court 2-4 days a week, NFL teams play only once a week. This makes games more of an event and encourages fans to set aside the three hours each week their team is playing.
This can be seen in the league’s TV ratings. 15.4 million people watch a regular season NFL game on average, with those numbers spiking even more for nationally televised contests.
Read more: WHY IS AMERICAN FOOTBALL CALLED FOOTBALL?
Comparatively, NBA games average a little more than a million viewers per game and MLB games average a paltry 0.17 million. 
If you know your team is playing again tomorrow or in a couple of days, you’re less likely to make every game a “must-watch” event.
With fewer games in the season, each one takes on greater importance. This holds for fantasy football enthusiasts too. The heightened stakes and value of each play is an emotional sugar rush, and with the majority of the games being played in a six-hour window each Sunday, managing and following a fantasy team is much simpler than in baseball or basketball.
ESPN set a record in 2022, with more than 11 million fans using their Fantasy Football tools to either draft, follow, or run their respective leagues. 
Daily fantasy football has also exploded over the past ten years with companies like DraftKings and FanDuel leading the way for those that would prefer to select a new team every week and play for huge cash payouts upwards of a million dollars.
Along with fantasy sports, wagering on games and player props has gained a foothold in the U.S. and attracts fans and viewers for many of the same reasons.
As of 2023, 36 of the 50 states had legalized sports betting in one form or the other. Some like Oregon only permits online betting, while others like Washington have physical sportsbooks where wagers can be made. 
This provides fans with another emotional stake in the game whether their favorite team is playing or not.
Physicality & Athleticism
It’s easy to view professional athletes as larger than life with an athletic skill set that borders on the qualities of a superhero. You can certainly see this in basketball where quickness and leaping ability are on full display. Even baseball offers this from time to time with incredible diving catches or the titanic strength that can send a baseball 500 feet.
But football requires its players to be fast, quick, strong, and in some cases, massive. Football requires a diverse skill set of players from behemoths weighing more than 300 pounds to cat-quick running backs that may be half as much. But when these various athletes are put together, the result is an intriguing and unique game with the physical glamor of a modern-day gladiator.
Add in the game’s hard-hitting style and you have must-see TV. This attraction to violent sports is nothing new. Boxing was one of the most popular sports in the United States until the mid-20th century, and football now fills that need for a violent and at times brutish sport. 
The NFL isn’t just the most popular sport in the country, it dominates live TV telecasts. In 2022 the eight most watched live events were all NFL football games with the Super Bowl drawing almost 100 million viewers, nearly double the second-place event which was the NFC championship game. Football has not only outpaced baseball and basketball but it has also buried them.
Is football your favorite professional sport? If not, what is, and why? Let us know in the comments below.