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Sacco Sez: Football is bigger than ever

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Despite well-publicized ratings drops over the last year or so, the NFL remains the most-watched spectator sport in America.

But beyond the NFL level, the game of football is bigger than ever.

"College football ranks as the nation's second most popular sport with 47.6 million fans attending games in 2017 and the 355 regular season games reaching more than 200 million unique fans [on television]," the National Football Foundation wrote in a May 15 news release.

A recent Gallup Poll found that college football ranks only behind the NFL in fan popularity with 56 percent of adults citing themselves as college football fans, the foundation added.

Generally speaking, people watch their favorite college teams on Saturday and their favorite pro team on Sunday, and both sports are heading toward big celebrations.

"College football will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2019, and our sport has certainly come a long way from several hundred spectators lining a wooden fence to watch the first game in 1869," said NFF President and CEO Steve Hatchell.

"We saw a big shift this year in the metrics and how things are measured with the adaptation of total live audience numbers by several media outlets. The need for the switch highlights that fans are truly reveling in the vision of college football anytime, anywhere and on any screen."

The 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship between Georgia and Alabama brought in the second biggest audience in cable television history with nearly 30 million viewers, according to the release. College football has the four biggest audiences in cable history and seven of the top ten, the NFF wrote.

Of course, the feeder programs for college football come at the high school level, where staggering numbers of young players are involved.

There are 16,659 high schools in the United States than sponsor football and approximately 1.1 million players at the high school level, according to national high school figures.

In the state of Texas, the total attendance at the state championship games in 2017 was 213,192, and 674 high schools in Texas play before near-sellout crowds during the regular season.

Of course, Texas would be considered an extreme example, but there is undeniable passion for high school football at every level and in every state. Many of the young men who play move on to play in college, and the passion of their hometown fans naturally mixes with a crazed atmosphere on many college campuses.

Hatchell noted that college football celebrates its 150th season in 2019, and in that same year the NFL will celebrate its 100th year.

The league office has had committees meeting regularly to discuss the many ways to make the 100th a year-long celebration.

While the league celebrates 1920 as its inaugural season, the dawn of pro football in America came from 1915 to 1917, albeit at the most primitive level.

During that time, post-college football moved from "semi-pro" conditions to elements that we would recognize as more professional, including player salaries, actual monetary guarantees to visiting teams (with both figures being very low by any standard), and the most basic beginnings of discussions involving actual creations of leagues and schedules.

I first met Steve Hatchell when he was a young assistant sports information director at the University of Colorado in the early 1970s and I note the obvious pride he has in the growth of the game through his current role with the NFF.

In the early 1970s, there was no ESPN and there certainly was none of the other networks that would follow.

The Broncos began their legendary home sellout streak with the first game of the 1970 season, coincidentally the Broncos' first as a member of the NFL.

The coming season thus will be Denver's 49th consecutive home sellout streak, a parallel to the earlier noted stats regarding football's growth at both the high school and college levels.

With 49 straight sellout seasons, that means that 2019 will not only mark the 150th anniversary of college football and the 100th anniversary of the NFL, but the 50th straight year of home sellouts for the Denver Broncos.

While there are many issues being addressed to make the game better and safer for everyone who participates, there is little doubt that when all levels of play are included, football is bigger than ever.

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