One thing that non-Americans just cannot get their heads around is the incredible popularity of college football. In most other countries university sports is a very low level and attracts nowhere near the same numbers going to watch the games.
Even just having a college level of sports seems strange to a lot of people. Soccer is probably the most popular sport in the world and in most countries there is a tiered system, with the very best teams at the top. But with football in the US, there is the professional NFL at the top and then there is the NCAA looking after the college game that regularly attracts more fans.
The national championship betting odds are just as eagerly anticipated as the predictions for the Super Bowl when it comes to football. But why is a supposedly inferior level of the game so popular with Americans? In some places, football fans would much rather watch teenagers play an amateur level of football than the multi-millionaire pros. Just why is that?
Although there are some other pro football leagues that come and go over time, the NFL is the only real pro league in the country. There are only 32 teams in the NFL, representing just 30 cities. That leaves a lot of the US with no local team to get behind. The college system takes care of that. A college football team ends up representing the entire community it is located in. There may even be people who don’t really care that much about football – but they will get behind the college team as they are representing them. Once someone in a family attends a college, that local pride is there for life.
It is not fair to say that the NFL does not have its rivalries. Thanks to teams playing the same opponents year after year, there are plenty of match-ups that always get the fans going. But even the biggest rivalries in the pro game cannot compare to those in college football. Ohio State vs. Michigan or USC vs. UCLA will always be a bigger occasion than anything the NFL can throw up. Even the cities that have more than one team rarely see a game between the two because of the conference system. Colleges have been playing each other for decades and those rivalries mean something.
Marching Bands and Fans
If you’ve ever watched a college game on TV you will have seen that there is one major difference in the stadium – the marching bands. They may not make any difference to the game being played but the presence of – and noise made by – a band massively adds to the occasion. Maybe it is the uniforms or the choreographed moves, but a college marching band in full flight is just a sight to behold. Add to that the exuberance of the rest of the college football fans in attendance and even the most passionate NFL fan base just can’t compete.
In the NFL, the top seven teams in each conference progress to the postseason bracket where they play in single-elimination games until the two conference champions meet in the Super Bowl. Admittedly, this game is seen by many as the biggest sports event in the world. But it arguably still can’t compare to the entire Bowl Season. The NCAA has changed the format of the postseason in college football to make it easier to determine a true champion. But there is so much else going on that the championship game is just one of many Bowl games. Some of these have decades of tradition – and they are usually played around the holidays. What’s not to like?
Stars of the Future
It is undeniable that the very best football players are on show every week in the NFL. There is no other football league in the world that compares and some of the athleticism seen on any given Sunday is almost unbelievable. But watching those stars develop as younger players is just as rewarding. Thanks to the intense media coverage football receives, every college fan knows the players who are expected to do well when they are still at high school. So fans can follow their careers as they learn their craft. It could be argued that there is more to take from watching a player grow into a superstar than just watching the finished product.
Many college football teams attract bigger crowds than teams in the NFL
Let’s get back to the fans and the occasion of college football again, shall we? Tailgating obviously does exist in the NFL – and some teams like the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, are well-known for it. But, once again, the pro game just does not compare with the college version. Maybe it is the relative youth of many of the fans in attendance. But there always seems to be a much bigger party atmosphere at a college football game. Quite often there are far more tailgaters than there are seats in the stadium. Tailgating is a major part of the deal in college football – not just an afterthought.
Simply, College Football is an American Tradition
While all American football leagues aren’t without their issues surrounding disrespectful Native American mascots, racism and growing issues with head injuries like CTE. We have touched on this factor in some of the other elements of college football we have mentioned. But it is probably the single biggest reason why the NFL just cannot compare with the NCAA. NFL teams can come and go, but college teams have been there for centuries in some cases – and will remain there for years to come.
Over those years, a college has forged deep ties with its community and has educated thousands of students. All of those students will have immense pride in the traditions of their school and the football program. The NFL may get the bigger broadcasting deals and bring in more viewers than other broadcasts, but it will never be as big as college football.