The United State’s obsession with college sports may be unique, but I do not find it strange in the least. There’s been a market for sports and sporting events of all levels for centuries, and America doesn’t have the number of professional teams or leagues to meet the demands of that market. The gap has since been filled in by colleges.
I’m sure we can argue until last call about whether football in the USA is more popular than soccer is in England. But for the sake of a shorter blog post let’s suffice it to say that the popularity of each sport is comparable to one another. With that said let’s take a look at the numbers.
England has a population of 53,000,000 and four levels of professional soccer totaling 92 teams. That’s roughly 576,000 people per professional team. If you include Wales into the population total, there’s one team for every 615,000 people.
The USA, on the other hand, has a population of 319,000,000 and only 32 professional football teams, which is close to 10,000,000 people per NFL team. That’s an insanely large number of people for one team to service. If you add in NCAA DI schools there’s 160 football teams in America, but that’s still close to 2,000,000 people per team. Add in DII and DIII schools there’s 578 teams or 551,000 people per team, which isn’t far off from the number of people per team for professional English soccer teams.
If the NFL had a sustainable minor league system in place, professional, or semi-professional, sports leagues could meet the demand of the population. However, by the time football tried to implement a farm team system in 1980s college football had already filled the demand 50 years before with the creation of multiple bowl games* that elevated college football from a regional spectacle to one of national relevance.
The same can be said for basketball. Until 2001 there were only 30 professional basketball teams. Since the creation the D-league that’s risen to 52, but it takes years to build up a fan base and college basketball has already filled the demand with its 351 NCAA DI teams. With the insane popularity of March Madness and a firm fan-base in place for college teams, the D-league is struggling to compete for popularity.
Of the Big 3 (Football, Baseball, and Basketball) in the USA, baseball gets the least amount of attention at the college level. But baseball has enjoyed a rich history of minor league, semi-professional, and amateur leagues. There are currently 30 Major League teams and 244 minor league baseball teams; two within 40 minutes of VA Tech (Salem, and Pulaski). Over the past 150 years, there have been more than 30,000 teams which fall under the minor league classification. Almost every town had a team, and most cities had several. The sustained presence of minor-league baseball filled the demand for local and regional teams long before the demand exceeded the supply.
If the NFL or NBA had a history of minor leagues the way baseball does, I’m sure college football and basketball wouldn’t be as popular. They might enjoy the same level of popularity as the wrestling team. .
*The Rose Bowl has been played consecutively since 1916. The Sun, Sugar, and Orange Bowls were added in 1935, and the Cotton Bowl in 1937)