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Football: America's Game


More than 140,000 million people tuned in to watch the 2004 Super Bowl on television. Author Michael MacCambridge describes the event as an unofficial national holiday.

Mr. MacCambridge says, "Everybody knows the Super Bowl is the most watched show among males every year, but it's also the most watched television show among females every year. More women watch the Super Bowl than watch the Academy Awards. You have this unusual sense you don't have a lot of other times in our culture of everybody paying attention to the same thing at the same time."

In "America's Game," Michael McCambridge looks at how football became just that over the course of the twentieth century. Through the first half of that century, baseball reigned supreme as America's favorite professional sport. Michael MacCambridge sees the year 1946 as a turning point.

Mr. MacCambridge notes, "The Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles, and so pro-football becomes the first truly national sports league. At the same time the Rams integrate pro football, a year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. And at the same meeting when the Rams moved to Los Angeles, Bert Bell was hired as commissioner. Bell was the man most responsible for creating the NFL's policy toward television. And that policy simply stated was, all home games were blacked out (not shown). That helped spur ticket sales locally. All road games were broadcast back to the home market."

And football turned out to be a sport made for television, with its use of close-up cameras and instant replays.

Football announcer: "Let's take a look at Jefferson. He runs it straight down the field, and it's first and goal at the one…"

Mr. MacCambridge says, "There was this constant action at a time when America became a more active culture, a little faster-paced. And that became in stark contrast to baseball, which is a leisurely game, a relaxed game."

NB: How much did the star power of individual players also contribute to the American public's growing love of the game?

MM: I think that had a lot to do with it. When you get to the late 1950s you start to see people like Johnny Unitas (yoo-NITE-us), Jim Brown. And as the game gets on TV more, you start to see kids all over the country imitating Unitas's throwing motion, his follow-through, the kind of stooped shoulders. He was a tremendous icon."

In 1965 pollster Lou Harris announced the results of a survey showing that for the first time, football was America's favorite sport. If any one person could claim responsibility for the game's surge in popularity, Michael MacCambridge believes it was Pete Rozelle, who became commissioner of the National Football League in 1960. Over the next two decades, his achievements included convincing ABC to broadcast Monday night football games as part of its prime time television schedule.

Mr. MacCambridge says, "It becomes an event people gear up for and a very successful television program. Within two or three years we see the World Series start going to prime time. We see the Olympics on prime time every night. I think Monday Night football moved sports towards a more central role in American popular culture."

The game has experienced its share of setbacks in recent decades drug scandals, multi million dollar labor contract disputes, and at the 2004 Super Bowl, a public outcry over the half-time entertainment show.

Singer Janet Jackson offended many viewers with her unexpected display of nudity during a pop duet with Justin Timberlake. Michael MacCambridge sees the incident as an inevitable result of the commercialism that's come to mark the Super Bowl.

Mr. MacCambridge contends, "If you spend all this time creating this spectacle and have all these sideshows, pretty soon it's going to get away from you and I think it did. The hope, certainly among the people I spoke to in football, is that we are going to get back to the fact that there is a championship football game going on on the field."

But the excesses and controversies haven't diminished the pleasures of the sport for Michael MacCambridge. After researching "America's Game" for 5 years, collecting 90,000 documents and doing 600 hours of interviews, he says he still looks forward to those weekly football games, when he can turn on the television set, sit back and be a fan like millions of other Americans.

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