The NFL looks remarkably spry at 100 years old.

The game is still spectacularly popular across bipartisan lines in the United States. An array of problems threatens its future — from how it deals with domestic violence to the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick to the concussion crisis to a cord-cutting population migrating away from traditional television.

But the league remains enormously popular across lines of gender, race, age, class and even politics, and NFL games remain pretty much the only sure thing for high ratings on the networks’ schedules — in 2018, they accounted for 34 of the top 50 broadcasts.

That popularity is easy to see in economic terms: The value of the average NFL franchise is now $2.86 billion, according to Forbes, up more than sixfold in the last 20 years. Indeed, with the exception of Disney’s assorted properties, no cultural product unites.

It may feel as if the NFL has always been this powerful. But for much of its early existence pro football was a niche, regional sport that did not take root nationally until the late 1950s. (The acknowledged starting point of the sport as we know it was the so-called Greatest Game Ever Played, the 1958 championship battle between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, which went to a sudden-death overtime while being broadcast to a huge television audience.)

In 1965, the Harris Poll found that pro football had replaced baseball as the country’s favorite sport. It has not relinquished that place since.
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