What is football’s future?

Published 11:59 am Thursday, August 17, 2017

Will football someday become the world’s first virtual professional sport?

With the NFL’s preseason underway, high school and college players back on the practice fields, and tens of thousands of fantasy leagues conducting their annual drafts, let’s put the question another way:

Which will happen first: the collapse of the NFL due to a shortage of players willing to risk injury? Or the development of computer-based football so compelling and unpredictable that it actually replaces the pro game loved by millions of fans?

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For now, both scenarios seem far fetched – but something’s gotta give. Football is being jolted as never before by both scientific and anecdotal evidence about the effects of repeated blows to the head.

What could the long-term future possibly be for a sport in which, for example, 40 former pros conduct a charity golf tournament (in California this summer) to raise money for research on traumatic brain injuries? For a game in which more than 2,000 women turn to a Facebook page devoted to the health consequences faced by their loved ones employed as pro players?

The Federation of State High School Associations tabulates that participation in football has fallen for the fourth straight year – with the latest seasonal drop totaling roughly 26,000 players. If the pipeline of human pro players eventually dries up, perhaps replacements will emerge from computer labs.

In fact, pro football has been inching toward “virtual” status for over three decades. The crude computer efforts of the early 1980s, developed by companies such as Nintendo, have evolved into modern, high-definition versions so life-like that they are played by many NFL pros in their spare time.

The NFL has enthusiastically supported this – in large part because of the license fees, but also, I believe, with an eye toward the future. The league also backs fantasy football, which continues to grow in popularity as more and more fans create and manage their own teams in computer-based leagues.

The problem, of course, is that computer games and fantasy leagues depend, at least for now, on real players and real on-field results. But that might someday change.

Consider what two of my acquaintances, one a former pro player, the other an armchair fanatic, say when asked about the state of football today.

The fan explains that he never goes to games anymore – they’re too expensive, too rowdy and, moreover, not as enjoyable as watching on a large-screen, high-def television.

He prefers a comfy chair, with reasonably-priced snacks at hand and a computer propped on his lap to track multiple fantasy squads.

The former pro explains that if the average fan were ever to stand on the field during an NFL game he would be so sickened by the sounds of collisions and screams of pain that he would cease loving the sport. What you see on TV, he adds, are guys in helmets and pads looking very much like avatars in a video game. Football is the only sport in which you can watch a player for several seasons yet very possibly have no clue whatsoever about what he looks like in person.

To my mind, these two insightful fellows are describing the foundation for totally virtual football. The NFL could control it, the networks would cover it, and gamblers might even support it.

Given the pace at which computer science is advancing, a truly equivalent virtual game can likely be crafted in a decade’s time.

Personally, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to rationalize my passion for a sport that is so clearly proving to cause lifelong suffering for its participants. I’m tired of all the dirty looks from my wife as she wonders why I so stubbornly support this game.

I’ve grown used to getting the scores and stats from Siri and Alexa. I suppose I’d be willing to have their colleagues play the game as well.


Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. He can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.