On Jan. 16, 1972, a Gallup headline heralded, "Football Overtakes Baseball as America's Top Spectator Sport." And indeed, sometime between 1960 and 1972 -- spanning a decade marked by sweeping moral, religious and cultural change in the U.S. -- Americans shifted from a primarily baseball-loving people to a primarily football-loving people.
More specifically, a January 1972 Gallup survey found 38% of Americans identifying football as their favorite sport to watch while 19% named baseball. That was nearly a reversal of what Gallup had found in the previous asking in December 1960. At that time, 34% named baseball and 21% football. For many decades, basketball ranked a distant third, but it gained more fans in the 1980s, and has since essentially matched baseball as Americans' second-favorite sport.
The first televised NFL game occurred in 1939, and regular broadcasts followed in the 1950s. However, TV coverage really took off in the 1960s as the NFL and a newly created rival league, the AFL, negotiated big network contracts. The momentum continued with the first Super Bowl played toward the end of that decade, followed by the debut of Monday Night Football in 1970. Whatever the cause, by 1972 Americans were enchanted with the game.
Even in 1972, the impact of television was obvious -- as George Gallup said, "Interest in football has no doubt been affected by the steadily increasing coverage the sport has received from the major television networks."
From 1972 through Gallup's latest update in 2013, football has continuously maintained the top ranking with only some variation, depending on the time of year the question was asked.
These data can be found in Gallup Analytics.
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