Field of Schemes
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May 10, 2012

Will new football stadiums outlive football?

Somewhere in the midst of my bleary-eyed watching of this week's Minnesota legislative debates over the Vikings stadium, I IMed a friend:

I really wish somebody would say, "By the time this stadium is paid off, football will be illegal"

Apparently Kyle Wingfield of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has hacked into either my IM account or my brain, because he's thinking the same thing:

Before spending a few hundred million taxpayer dollars — for example, on a new stadium for the Falcons — it is worth mulling worst-case scenarios. The worst of the worst cases for the stadium is that, within a few decades, football as we know it is extinct. ...
The NFL faces 70 lawsuits covering more than 1,800 ex-players who claim the league knew the dangers of concussions but didn't fully inform players about them. ... [And] there are other threats. Only a fraction of those who play football are pros. What if colleges or high schools are sued by concussed ex-players? How hard would schools — which, unlike the NFL, have a purpose beyond football — fight? Or might they be more inclined to fold their programs, costing the NFL its de facto minor leagues? The supply of players could also drop if fewer parents let their children play the game.

Wingfield stresses that he's not predicting the imminent demise of the NFL, but when you're talking about building a stadium that probably won't be open for five years and then is expected to last another 30, it's good to take the long view. And the long view for football is indeed problematic: An excellent Grantland article cited by Wingfield paints some pretty believable pictures of how the NFL could disappear (or at least become a shadow of its former self, a la boxing), starting with liability suits, and going on through parents barring their kids from playing the sport and advertisers steering clear:

This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years. Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players — or worse, high schoolers — commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn't worth it. The Ivy League quits football, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it's mainly a regional sport in the southeast and Texas/Oklahoma. The socioeconomic picture of a football player becomes more homogeneous: poor, weak home life, poorly educated. Ford and Chevy pull their advertising, as does IBM and eventually the beer companies.
There's a lot less money in the sport, and at first it's "the next hockey" and then it's "the next rugby," and finally the franchises start to shutter.

That's the doomsday scenario, obviously, and there's always the possibility that either the sport finds a way to play that eliminates the likelihood of traumatic brain injury (though don't hold your breath on that) or that it finds enough desperate youth from either the U.S. or elsewhere who are willing to trade their future mental health for a paycheck that they can keep fans interested (though that's pretty much how it went with boxing, which isn't a very promising comparable).

In any event, it's very much something that legislators should be keeping in mind before saddling themselves with 30-year stadium bonds: Unlike baseball and basketball and hockey (north of the Mason-Dixon Line, anyway) and maybe even soccer (though the jury's still out on whether MLS can really support all the teams it keeps tacking on), securing a football team for your city in 2012 should probably be seen as a risky long-term venture. And if you disagree, I've got a velodrome to sell you.


Head injuries were well-documented in boxing when I was a kid, and in my opinion did nothing to stunt the sport's popularity during its 90's heyday. I think what has decimated boxing is the rise of MMA, which can offer more bang for the buck and at greater frequency, all under the guidance of a single entity (UFC - the other guys are just feeders), instead of boxing's several commissioning bodies.

Posted by Dave on May 10, 2012 09:42 AM

The idea that football will fade away over the next 30 years isn't at all credible. That you can concoct a scenario of football fading means nothing. Where's the evidence? We aren't seeing fans turning away from the game, we aren't seeing players turning away. Every fall, high school players play football without any expectation of playing in the NFL or even playing in college. That indoor bicycle racing faded in popularity after WWII in the US isn't evidence. Yes, sports can fade in popularity. No one is saying it can't happen, it is just that there is no evidence that football is fading in popularity. If brain injuries threaten the popularity of the game, the NFL has powerful incentives to change the rules to reduce the risk - there's a lot of money in pro football, after all.

Posted by Robert on May 10, 2012 10:11 AM

What hurt boxing was the 90 second bouts that people paid a lot of money to watch on pay per view. There was all this hype, and all the money, just to watch some stumblebum go down in the first round.

Posted by Robert on May 10, 2012 10:14 AM

I'm surprised to read a story like this on FieldOfSchemes. First, no stadium built to day will be adequate 15 years from now and will need to be replaced since everyone has the "maintain a first-class venue" clause in the contract. Secondly, everyone knows that the NFL will move to using robots. Imagine, no players to pay or get hurt. You hire a few game-players (as in PS/2, Nintendo, etc.) to lend a human element, but most linemen could be automated ala Madden football. Heck, people watch NASCAR (cars driving in a circle), why wouldn't they watch robot football? You just have to make a quarterback blow up every once in a while.

Posted by wisher on May 10, 2012 10:19 AM

Several points here...

1.) I'm completely against taxpayer-subsidized stadiums for private profit, so don't get the wrong ideas.

2.) Even if football's popularity were to dramatically decline, it's not as though Americans will just stop caring about sports. Should the NFL falter, these megastadiums might actually become better deals for communities since the potential replacement sports (such as soccer?) can host more games in a season. If football declines, I can imagine scenarios where soccer starts having bigger/better crowds.

3.) What the heck does "the next rugby" mean? Rugby is statistically safer than most sports, and I've suffered exactly *one* concussion in my 13 years of playing. And that's in a sport where the typical player competes in 20-30 matches per year. Rugby players are taught to use their shoulders to tackle, must wrap in making a tackle and safely bring their opponent to the ground (no dump tackles), to stay below the shoulders in contact, and to put their head *behind* the player they're tackling. Additionally, rugby doesn't have the violent blind-side collisions that football does. Rugby injuries are almost exclusively shoulders (from ground contact) and knees (from cutting).

Posted by EVG on May 10, 2012 10:46 AM

Robert, if football could change the rules to get rid of TBIs, this would be a different story. (You'll notice I'm not arguing this about hockey, which could easily take care of its brain injury problem by instituting a "No beating people up" rule.) But if you read the Gladwell piece I linked to (or any of the other recent articles on football and brain injuries), you'll see that there's almost no way to make football safe without turning it into an entirely different sport.

Wisher, if you're only counting on 15 years from a new stadium, you're probably right, football should be safe for that long. But then legislators shouldn't be talking about the 30 years of economic activity they'll get from games. (While I'm actually pretty positive about the MLS's future, I'm less so about it being able to fill 70,000-seat stadiums in the next few decades, especially 70,000-seat stadiums built for football.)

I hadn't thought of exploding robot quarterbacks, though. My personal favorite scheme is to just have Madden-style computer-animated players, which would look about the same on TV anyway, and if you really wanted you could replace the field with a giant video board and let people in the stands watch that. Plus, how much cooler would the NFL be if coaches could press down-down-X and make their players fly?

Posted by Neil deMause on May 10, 2012 11:20 AM

If FoS had a "Like" button, this article would've gotten it from me.

When something is as big as the NFL is today, convention wisdom is always that it will last forever. And the six-day race link was perfect. Well said, Neil.

Posted by Ben Miller on May 10, 2012 11:49 AM

re: rugby and "must wrap in making a tackle"

For awhile now I've thought this is a no-brainer (no pun intended) for the NFL. No more of this nonsense where a DB folds his arms across his chest and leads with his head to bump into the ball carrier instead of tackling him. If you aren't wrapping your arms around the guy, it's an illegal tackle. 15 yards. When you're leading with your arms, your head naturally moves up and you're much less likely to snap your neck. Or ram your helmet through your opponent's knees.

re: MMA - Boxing was at a fraction of its peak popularity long before MMA came along. The downward slide coincided with the growth in popularity

Posted by Keith on May 10, 2012 12:07 PM

I wouldn't mind if the NFL ceased to exist. The NFL is so full of itself like it can't do any wrong - the rule changes have been stupid, the Super Bowl is just one bloated commercial & party farce that's not worth watching anymore, and moving games overseas is a slap in the face to home fans. The local team here is a mere shadow of its former self; has inept management from top to bottom & a bad head coach and staff; not to mention a greedy running back whose threatening to hold out despite getting a $7.7M franchise tag.

As for the other comments, was never a fan of boxing - in the 1980s & 1990s perceived it as fixed & bouts way too short & there's nothing to like about pay-per-view. Soccer: uh, it will never reach huge popularity in the US of the Big Four or even NCAAF & hoops. It's WAY too simplistic & boring. Even if the US could somehow attract some great players, it's still just kickball. As for rugby, I might watch it but I have no sense of history or local ties to it, tho I'd still rather watch baseball or hockey.

Posted by Mark on May 10, 2012 02:17 PM

I thought that about soccer before I went to a game, but now I see that it has the two most important qualities for American sport: getting drunk and yelling a lot.

I agree that it'll probably never be as popular here as in Europe, but I can certainly see it becoming as popular as hockey, at least outside of Minnesota and New England.

Posted by Neil deMause on May 10, 2012 02:24 PM

Don't know about that Neil. We've already seen that in the Northwest soccer is more popular than every other pro sport except the NFL at this point. Give it another decade or two and Seattle, Portland and Vancouver won't just be the outliers.

Posted by Dan on May 10, 2012 02:31 PM

If you took Seattle as your only data point, you'd be convinced that the WNBA is about to take the world by storm. (No pun intended.)

Posted by Neil deMause on May 10, 2012 02:38 PM

American football always has been ridiculously violent. It's the nature of the game. I really wouldn't be surprised to see Aussie Rules football replace the NFL. There are tackles and hits, but the game is not set up to cause extreme harm to players. I'm personally in favor of Aussie Rules, honestly!

Posted by Roger C. on May 10, 2012 03:01 PM

Medical and technological advances will keep football from becoming obsolete. There are already a number of manufacturers developing helmets that will substantial reduced the rate of concussions.

Posted by Dean on May 10, 2012 03:13 PM

Aussie rules has it's own issues. Mainly that guys are throwing themselves ridiculously high in the air just asking for injuries on the way down.

Posted by Dan on May 10, 2012 03:23 PM

Dean, utterly ridiculous, you equate science with magic. No amount of technology can fix everything.

Posted by Roger C. on May 10, 2012 03:32 PM

Dean, utterly ridiculous, you equate science with magic. No amount of technology can fix everything.

Posted by Roger C. on May 10, 2012 03:33 PM

I simply do not expect Grantland's predictions to come true. Maybe our society would be better off as a whole if it did -- but it's not going to.

I seem to remember that snow skiing had a similar crisis in the 1970's. They got over that by incredible increases in insurance premiums.

Also, think of Dan Wheldon and his tragic crash in Southern California. One way to avoid that is to change the aerodynamics rules to slow the cars down. Every time they try that, the engineers figure out new ways to make the cars go faster, and the old problems return.

There was a great article on "the death of football" in the Chronicle a couple days ago. The quote in it was, "Men go to war." In a nutshell, there you go. I can see them implementing a "Three Concussion Rule", or some such thing (the owners would never stand for a one-concussion rule)... But they'll strike a compromise.

"Big Helmets" also pose a risk. It's too easy to get leverage on them. So instead of brain injuries, you'd get neck injuries, which really are no better.

Maybe the answer is to go without padding at all.

Posted by MikeM on May 10, 2012 04:43 PM

The solution is easy, no padding and you can only "tackle" not "hit". Basically you play football the same way you did in the school yard with your high school buddies.

No bringing people to the ground with your shoulder, you use your hands and arms.

It is still the same game more or less, and almost no head injuries.

Posted by Joshua Northey on May 10, 2012 06:52 PM

Not using your shoulders will lead to a higher number of head injuries than using them. By focusing on arm/hand tackles you'd be creating a lot of 'whip' tackles that tend to send heads crashing into the ground. People should always use their shoulders, put their head to the side or behind the player they're tackling, and drive with their legs (a rugby tackle).

Posted by EVG on May 10, 2012 07:35 PM

i think you could find some very similar articles being written during the teddy roosevelt administration.

interesting points raised to keep in mind but sounds more like wishful thinking than any actual evidence that football is going anywhere for the foreseeable future.

Posted by jaroslav hasek on May 10, 2012 08:16 PM

SOCCER would take its place, so the stadiums might need a refit

Posted by runner on May 10, 2012 10:00 PM

Major League Soccer may or may not survive.

If it doesn't, the Mexican League will move a couple of its less popular teams to Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, etc.

The Mexican National team and some of the more popular club teams will sell 90,000 tickets in the Los Angeles Coliseum on a work night.

Posted by Juanito on May 10, 2012 10:41 PM

A solution occurred to me hours after I wrote the above:

The National Flag Football League.

Wouldn't sell 1,000 tickets in NYC, Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Washington.


Posted by MikeM on May 11, 2012 12:44 AM

Do they still do headers in soccer? Just wondering.

Posted by See Nick Overlook on May 11, 2012 08:43 AM

Yes, but 1) while there's some evidence for traumatic brain injury from heading soccer balls, it's not as strong as the evidence that NFL helmet collisions cause severe damage, and 2) you could get rid of headers in soccer and it would still be the same sport, albeit somewhat different. That'd probably be more on the scale of legalizing the forward pass in football or adding the three-point line in basketball; the changes needed to make football safe would leave it looking like a different sport altogether.

Posted by Neil deMause on May 11, 2012 08:55 AM

Your response, Roger C., borders on the ridiculous. Helmets already exist that will REDUCE concussions and make the game safer. Not sure how equate my comments with "fixing everything".

These forums always run the risk of absurd comments...

Posted by Dean on May 11, 2012 09:55 AM

From the Gladwell article linked above:

Would better helmets help? Perhaps. And there have been better models introduced that absorb more of the shock from a hit. But, Nowinski says, the better helmets have become - and the more invulnerable they have made the player seem - the more athletes have been inclined to play recklessly.

"People love technological solutions," Nowinski went on. "When I give speeches, the first question is always: 'What about these new helmets I hear about?' What most people don't realize is that we are decades, if not forever, from having a helmet that would fix the problem. I mean, you have two men running into each other at full speed and you think a little bit of plastic and padding could absorb that 150 gs of force?"

Posted by Neil deMause on May 11, 2012 10:10 AM


"Not using your shoulders will lead to a higher number of head injuries than using them"

That is simply not true. I have played tackle football with and without pads, I have played contact and non-contact hockey, the idea that you are going to get as many head injuries without hitting is just farcical.

Posted by Joshua Northey on May 11, 2012 10:19 AM

No worries! In 30 years or less, Ultimate (flying disc) and the AUDL will replace football (well maybe).

Posted by AGS on May 11, 2012 01:59 PM

Dean, you must be young, the chances of companies inventing injury proof equipment for football is pretty slim. They've been working on this for years, and this is the best they've got. Going back to the game's beginnings, it has always been known as a dangerous sport. Just because we have better technology now, does not mean everything can be fixed. People in the 60's expected to be flying all over the galaxy by now, and we haven't even been back to the moon. Get real.

Posted by Roger C. on May 11, 2012 04:53 PM

Finding technological fixes may be irrelevant. The guys who are speaking up and/or filing suit have been retired for awhile. So even if you came up with a perfect solution this weekend, you may have 10 or 20 years of bad news before you would have absolute proof that your solution really is perfect. It's probably safe to assume that the current tech isn't perfect, so can the sport survive a quarter century of that bad news? That's the question.

Posted by Keith on May 11, 2012 05:07 PM

Joshua: Actually, you have no idea what you're talking about. As a referree, I notice that proper shoulder tackling only results in concussions on very rare occasions. However, cowardly/arm-centric whip tackles as seen in backyards and frat houses result in numerous head injuries since the 'tackler' is whipping his opponent towards the ground - often in a way that gives the tackled player little time/ability to protcect himself. In fact, just last week I had to call an ambulance for a high school player that suffered a head and neck injury because his opponent cowardly whip-tackled him into the pitch.

Posted by EVG on May 11, 2012 07:09 PM

Ok grandpa, keep deluding yourself. I have only ever seen head injuries from hits (dozens of them), never from "cowardly arm tackles" as you so term them.

Posted by Joshua Northey on May 14, 2012 01:07 PM

I'm 28 (?)... and I've probably officiated more games in the past year than you've ever been a part of in your life. How you don't think a whip tackle (which are rare in both modern football and rugby, but would be prevalent in your pussyfoot backyard league) would create head injuries is beyond me. Football is a game of yards, not just downs like you and your frat buddies played. People would get whipped down hard to keep their opponent from gaining even an inch more than they wanted. Science clearly isn't your thing.

Posted by EVG on May 14, 2012 04:01 PM

Okay, can we please stop the name-calling now, guys? I have no expertise in what kind of tackles cause the worst head injuries, but I'm pretty sure neither the age nor the fraternity affiliation of commenters plays into it at all.

Posted by Neil deMause on May 14, 2012 06:57 PM

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