Has the NFL supplanted Major League Baseball as America's new favorite pastime, or is it just a more efficient business?
The average NFL ticket price is $50.02, more than double the price ($18.30) to attend a Major League Baseball game, so bang for the buck (although the NFL has a lot more big hits) may not be a reason.
The NFL's total revenues for 2002 were $4.8 billion, $1.3 billion more than the next major professional sport (baseball, by the way), and it had very little to do with tickets and jerseys.
It starts at the top, with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the 62-year old Georgetown grad who has been at the helm for 14 years and leads a shrewd group.
Lucrative TV Deals, No Strikes
That group is responsible for signing billion-dollar television deals and maintaining harmony between players and owners — while baseball barely averted a strike at the start of the 2002 season, and a lockout shortened the NBA's 1998-'99 season.
"I don't think the NFL has ever been this successful or popular," said Tom Lowry, media editor at Business Week. "Essentially, it's a media empire in the making."
Most importantly, according to Business Week, every NFL team is making a profit. (By way of comparison, the NHL's Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators recently filed for bankruptcy).
Tagliabue realizes his league has made some fumbles along the way, yet still manages to persevere.
"We had our own controversies, we had our own strikes," he told ABCNEWS in a rare interview. "And I'd like to think we learned from that and created a partnership where we try to share a vision of the future, try to grow the revenue, try to be the best there is in sports — out-compete everybody else but not fight with each other."
To understand how the league tackles its competition so well, just take a look at this season. To start the season, the NFL convinced New York City to host a kickoff party during rush hour in Times Square, where half a million people showed up.
And the league provided plenty of drama throughout the season. In December, a whopping 19 teams still had a chance to make the playoffs. A league-record 24 games were decided in overtime. Throw in some bad calls by the refs to decide the outcome of the games, and the NFL is the hottest topic of conversation from the water cooler to the airwaves of sports talk radio, and even the lead story on some local newscasts.
The Passion Spreads
Tagliabue understands that all this attracts hordes of viewers.
"The more teams that you have that are competitive, the more teams that you have that are chasing the championship around the country, and in a country the size of ours with almost 300 million people, the more the passion spreads, the more the interest spreads," he said.
It is this fervor for football that, according to a recent study by New York-based research firm Brand Keys Inc., shows that NFL fans are the most loyal of any sport, followed by sycophants of the NBA, then MLB, and finally the NHL. It is the reason the NFL will unveil a 24-hour football channel to air classic games, and why the 10 most watched shows in TV history are Super Bowls.
Football is passion. Just ask director Oliver Stone, whose movie Any Given Sunday tries to portray the lifestyles of professional football players. Stone once said of football, "Viscerally, it evokes emotions of war, pain, injustice, vengeance, which are conquered by brains, skill, stamina, and character."
For 130 million Americans and another 800 million fans around the world, there's no doubt about what they'll be watching on Sunday night — the Super Bowl.
ABCNEWS' Steve Alperin and Brian Rooney contributed to this report.