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ODU Researcher Says NFL Football Can Learn From Boxing's Decline

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Lamar Reams grew up a boxing fan, bonding with his dad watching memorable heavyweight and middleweight fights in the 1980s. At the time, boxing held a lofty perch among America's sporting pastimes.

Those days are long gone. A series of factors - including corruption, decreased network television exposure and a shortage of entertaining fights - has damaged the perception of boxing to the point where it is little more than an afterthought in mainstream American sport.

And Reams, an Old Dominion University researcher who studies sport consumer behavior, said a certain league with a high-profile game this weekend could learn from the decline of boxing.

"It's about listening to your fans and examining the marketplace, which in today's world means paying attention to the preferences of millennials," said Reams, assistant professor of sport management. "The NFL (National Football League) is the top sport in America right now. But there's no guarantee that it will always be."

Reams has published nearly a dozen research papers on marketing and consumer behavior of combat sports, presented at conferences across the globe and consulted with several combat sport organizations. He said mixed martial arts, particularly the high-profile Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), has stepped into the void left by boxing's decline among fight fans.

"Going back to days of the Roman Empire and gladiator battles through today, the consumer appetite for violent sports will always be there," Reams said. As an indicator of fan interest in combat sports, Reams said UFC President Dana White likes to repeat a quote that, "if different sports were happening at the same time on four different street corners, people would run to watch the fight."

As it has grown in popularity, UFC appears to have learned the lessons from boxing's decline, providing fans with lively fight cards, generating publicity and attention for the sport. "They match their fighters well, so fans know that if they watch a UFC event, they're going to see exciting fights, top to bottom, either on network television or pay-per-view," Reams said.

This year's Super Bowl, pitting the Atlanta Falcons against the New England Patriots on Sunday, will probably be the most-watched television program in 2017 in the United States. But despite the runaway popularity of NFL football, Reams sees the potential for a decline.

"There are fans of the game who have started to say the sport is less entertaining, and this could be troublesome for the NFL," he said. "In part, this could be due to saturation because now you have Thursday and occasionally, Saturday games. So, there's more football, but that isn't necessarily a good thing."

Reams said NFL football used to be played on Sunday, with one game on Monday night. "With social media and so many additional entertainment options available, it becomes much more difficult for not only the NFL, but for all sport organizations to regularly keep the attention of their audiences."

Greater awareness of head injuries among current and former players can affect the reputation of all sports with physical contact. Perhaps mindful of that risk, Reams said, the organizers of mixed martial arts undertook 15 years ago to "mainstream" the sport, codifying rules and giving referees greater control over fights.

Reams said the NFL is perceived as acting to make the game safer only in response to public outcry and potential legal action, and that puts the league at risk of decline in popularity in the future.

He grew up a Green Bay Packers fan, so Reams will watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, along with most American sport fans. But he said the league can't take its spot atop America's sporting perch for granted. "All sport leagues experience the ups and downs associated with consumer interest. For the NFL, they need to keep working hard to keep their core fan base intact, with greater attention and improved marketing strategies geared towards younger fans. The game of football has evolved, so it's only natural that the rules and marketing associated with the NFL should also."

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