Why is football such a lure for Americans and other sports aren’t?

The Super Bowl is another reminder of how big the game is here. What does it have that, say, ski jumping doesn’t?

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A huge TV audience is expected to watch Super Bowl LVI.

A huge TV audience is expected to watch Super Bowl LVI.

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More than 100 million TV viewers are expected to take in Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Bengals and the Rams. This is noteworthy because 100 million of anything is noteworthy and because the matchup isn’t one anybody other than a Bengals fan would have dreamed up.

Underdog Cincinnati has star quarterback Joe Burrow, star receiver Ja’Marr Chase and a bunch of guys who play with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. The Rams are the splashier team with more big-name players. But there’s a nagging thought that quarterback Matthew Stafford will suddenly remember that he’s a Lion at heart, not a lionheart, and that because the team is from LA and the game is in LA, fans will want to beat traffic more than they’ll want to beat the Bengals. None of this is good for team morale.

The massive number of people drawn to the Super Bowl is another reminder of the power of the NFL and football. It got me thinking: Why is the sport such a lure for Americans, why aren’t other sports nearly as popular and who on earth came up with Olympic biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting? The temptation is to say it started with a Finn in pursuit of a reindeer, but thank goodness I managed to resist that urge.

The Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics are going on at the same time. We get this every four years, and it’s hard not to compare and contrast. We Americans are snobbish about our spectator sports, especially football, baseball and basketball. Many of us look down on other games as something lesser. But who decided that shooting a round ball through a hoop was more entertaining than sledding down an icy course? What did the first people to see a basketball game say? Probably not, I didn’t know you had hops like that, Levi! Probably, Take the peach basket off that pole and get back to milking the cows, Jebediah. Yet here we are, all LeBron all the time.

Some people are born with the ability to hit a baseball, and our society rewards that ability with applause and money. But why that sport and not, say, competitive canoeing? Don’t tell me it’s because baseball is so exciting. What if typing the name “McCaskey” on a laptop were beyond the ability of 99.9% of the population? Answer: I’d be a billionaire.

It all seems so random.

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Americans worship football and regard football players as modern-day gladiators. The sport seems to answer a need in us for hard hitting, as long as someone other than us is being hit. Rugby players giggle at the sight of NFL players in uniform. Real men don’t wear pads, they say. Yet rugby can’t touch football in this country in terms of popularity. Strange.

Some of us would say basketball played at a high level is the epitome of athleticism, a perfect combination of running and jumping, finesse and strength. Soccer fans would beg to differ.

I can make fun of luge all I want, but how arbitrary is my teasing? How much more ridiculous a sport is luge than golf? Who decided that hitting a tiny, dimpled ball a long way was cause for adoration?

We — I — snicker at figure skaters’ outfits but how strange are hockey uniforms when you really look at them? Are those short pants or long shorts? What about baseball managers wearing uniforms? Who thought that was a good idea?

Some Olympic sports look like the result of a very long night of drinking. Who in their right mind thinks the sport of skeleton — sledding headfirst at 80 mph — makes perfect sense? How about the halfpipe? Bobsled? Ski jumpers are absolutely insane, and I wonder why I can’t watch them more than every four years, the same way I wonder why I get stuffing only at Thanksgiving.

Why do some sports captivate me but not most other people? Why isn’t snowball fighting an Olympic sport? Wheelbarrow ice racing? So many questions. And a big “I don’t know” for all of them.

Certain sports take root. Others don’t. Certain sports are big in one region and not another. In Afghanistan, the nation sport is buzkashi, in which horsemen try to grab a decapitated goat and put it in the opponent’s goal. Yet there doesn’t appear to be a big interest in Central Asia in watching the Rams’ Aaron Donald try to take off Burrow’s head.

I loved playing kickball in gym as a kid. I can’t tell you why it isn’t a mainstream sport. It should be. There’s no reason why performance-enhancing drugs couldn’t gain a foothold or why analytics couldn’t alter the game beyond recognition. A guy can dream.

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