Confronted with mounting player safety concerns, a shrinking talent pool, and what some say is declining interest, football insiders are wondering if the National Football League will continue to remain America's most popular sport.
Make no mistake, the NFL has had a successful year, but some still worry about the sport's future viability.
In 2012, the NFL generated $9.5 billion, mostly through advertising. The league has accounted for 31 of the 32 most-watched programs this past fall, making it the most-successful and popular sports league in the country, according to Advertising Age
Persistent safety concerns that could spawn heavy lawsuits pervade the sport
, though, prompting Fox Sports anchor Troy Aikman to make a bold statement last year:
"At some point, football is not going to be the No. 1 sport," the former Dallas Cowboys star quarterback said.
Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard echoed the sentiment.
"Thirty years from now, I don't think [the league] will be in existence," at least not in its current form, Pollard said in an interview with CBSSports.com last month.
"The league is trying to move in the right direction [with player safety]," Pollard added. "The only thing I'm waiting for, and, Lord, I hope it doesn't happen, is a guy dying on the field."
More than 1,500 former players or their families filed a collective lawsuit exceeding $10 billion against the NFL seeking compensation for sustaining life-altering concussions.
The suit accuses the league of fraudulently concealing the risks of brain trauma in professional football
In addition, NFL fans fear that the player safety concerns have made some players less willing to pursue the sport, shrinking the talent pool for coaches to select the largest, fastest, and most talented players.
It has scared many hopefuls away even trying the sport even as pre-adolescents. Since 2009, there has been a 5 percent decline in children between ages six and 12 from participating in such leagues, said Tom Cove, president of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Not helping either were President Barack Obama's recent comments that he would "think long and hard" before letting a son play American football because of safety concerns.
A January Harris Poll found the percentage of respondents who named the NFL their favorite sport declined from 36 to 34 percent in the past year.
In response to growing safety concerns, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with 32 team owners last March to launch an offensive against the perception that football is a dangerous sport.
As part of the initiative, Goodell started an advertising campaign to present the NFL in a positive light, showing that league leaders are proactively confronting safety issues.
Last year, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis narrated a commercial that highlighted the helmet, equipment, and rules that have changed over the years to make the game safer.
In the ad, old leather helmets from the early 1900s are compared with today's hard plastic helmets.
"We certainly have come a long way," Lewis says. "Thing is, we're just getting started. Here's to making the next century safer and more exciting than ever. Forever forward. Forever football."
The league also donated $100 million to Harvard University for a study on concussions as well as a $30 million grant to the National Institutes of Health for brain research.
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