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TAKE THREE / Three Views of the Southland | SHAUN HUBLER

Slicing Up the Pigskin Pie

September 19, 1997|SHAUN HUBLER

There was a high school football game the other night. Our teenager said she might "swing by." Those were her exact words. Swing by. Astounding. Back in Pennsylvania, where I grew up, that would be like getting up on Sunday morning and announcing that you might "swing by" the Catholic church.

Back home in those days, football was like a force of nature, like wind chill, something around which lives were planned. Weekends were a write-off. No one studied. No one worked. They got ready for The Game.

When the high school Game was over, they got ready for the Game at Penn State. And when that Game was over, the Steelers loomed. Fans worked shifts. They were dedicated, not like the fans in places such as, say, Southern California, where, in our mind's eye, the bleachers were filled with goof-offs in sunglasses watching too-handsome players have too much fun.

How were we to know that, a generation later, Southern California would have the last laugh? From coast to coast, it seems, pollsters are studying the future of football, and, as it turns out, that future is looking more than a little like L.A.

Teenagers, they are finding, have begun to adopt that dreaded too-much-fun ethos, not just in slang and fashion, but in sports as well. Last year, when the Sporting Goods Manufacturers' Assn. tallied its top 10 most popular youth sports, football finished third nationwide, behind basketball and in-line skating. Four years ago, it was No. 1.

Meanwhile, hoops continued to beat out the gridiron as the preferred sport among kids ages 12-17 for the fourth year in a row in the national ESPN Chilton Sports Poll. Not that football wasn't a fun thing, the kids reported. It's just that it wasn't, as some wag once said, the only thing.

Now, this is not to be alarmist. Football still is huge. In fact, in the sports poll in which the teenagers dissed it, every other age group from 18 up reported that, as far as they were concerned, football would always be the only thing. The National Football League still draws higher TV ratings, higher U.S. licensing revenues, higher fees from sponsors and higher average attendance (in cities that, ahem, have NFL teams) than any other sport.

But there's watching and there's playing when it comes to pro sports, and the popularity of the second, market researchers say, is a pretty good indicator when it comes to the future of the lucrative first. And it's on the playing end--with its expensive equipment and its injuries and its exclusion of girls--that the experts have detected those disturbing, Los Angeles-esque signs of doubters in our midst.

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Take, for example, the question of recess at your average suburban elementary school. On any given day now, you'll find any number of games going on--a little football, a little kickball, some tetherball, some hoops. Wonderful, you say. Sports are alive and well.

Sucker. This is not wonderful, not if you're the NFL. This is creeping erosion of your market share. A generation ago, American kids on a playground played two things in autumn: football and whatever the girls were playing that day. Now there are skateboarders, and roller hockey players, and Tiger Woods wannabe golfers and vanloads of kids who could have been future football junkies had their moms not signed them up for youth soccer instead.

Meanwhile, inner cities have become less and less hospitable for budding athletes of any kind. There are too many parks where gangs have overrun the tag teams, too many high-rolling dope dealers who've replaced high-rolling NFL stars as role models.

For the NFL, this has meant not only a loss of fans, but of a long-standing recruiting base as well, says Harry Edwards, a sports sociologist at UC Berkeley and a consultant to the San Francisco 49ers.

"There are schools that once were athletic powerhouses where no one even goes out anymore," Edwards says. "A couple years ago, they had football tryouts at Richmond High in Northern California, and five people went out for the team."

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These trends are a bigger deal than they might seem. Football is big business, and the NFL market researchers have found that childhood is not only when the best players start playing ball, but when the majority of dedicated fans get hooked. As the NFL's marketing chief told one newspaper early this year, "It's kind of like, if you don't get them at 8, forget about it." Indeed, the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball recently hired ESPN Chilton to poll grade-school kids.

So whither football? I for one can't imagine a world without it, but hey, consider the source. You never know when perfectly fanatical people will haul off and go well-adjusted on you, wrecking perfectly lucrative industries.

Here in sunny Southern California, though, it does shed an interesting light on our persnicketiness regarding the NFL. Maybe our problem is that we're just too used to having too much fun. They should hand out free sunglasses. That'd get the fans to swing by.

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Shawn Hubler's e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com.

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