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American football is not particularly popular in Germany, so I as a fan of the sport have this discussion all the time. From my observation, and comparing it with other sports that are popular over here, the sport has some basic elements that make it tricky:
Football matches have a really slow pace. While the actual plays are fast, you have breaks all the time where nothing is happening.
Football matches are long. A typical NFL game takes a bit more than 3 hours.
Football rules are totally obscure to anyone who doesn’t follow it regularly
Now all of these don’t necessarily make the game boring. But compare it to other sports. I used to play and still watch handball, an extremely fast paced sport with hardly any breaks, matches last for slightly more than an hour, and the rules are reasonably simple to explain. Even if you don’t understand the intricacies, it’s exciting to watch because something is always happening. The same can be said of basketball or hockey, for all the americans out there.
Compare football to the other sport that is extremely popular worldwide: soccer. I would argue that much of the same points can be made for soccer:
Matches can be and often are horribly slow. Often you have long streches were really nothing happens
Matches are also long, although not quite as long as football matches
Rules are somewhat obscure. Try explaining offside rules to someone who doesn’t know the sport and you’ll understand
And for me personally, I hardly watch football games unless there’s a major tournament going on, as I find the sport utterly boring (I grew up playing handball, so every sport where you regularly have two minutes without a score is boring…). So what makes these two sports so popular overall?
I believe it is exactly because they are long and slow paced. It allows you to gather around the TV with your friends, which wouldn’t make much sense if the match was short, and you have plenty of time in the slow periods to do other stuff than watching: get a beer, get some snacks, argue about the idiot player/coach/referee and claim that you would have done it ten times better, etc… But all that requires you to know the game, the rules, the individuals you see on the screen. Otherwise that’s no fun. It’s often not so much the game that is entertaining, but all the things that happen outside that really matter.
One time I was watching a football match with a good friend of mine, for him it was the first time and he was curious. In the beginning, he really didn’t know what was going on. So in every break, I commented on what had just happened, what the implications are, etc… And by the end of the match, he had a very basic understanding of how it works. And he told me that now that it was actually kind of fun to watch it, but again, because by the end we could even argue a bit about what was happening. It’s that social aspect of fandom that makes sports really popular. And it explains why people go complete nuts over sports that, by objective criteria, are terrible slow and boring.
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