Grand Debates: Football vs. Basketball

By Blake Baxter

football vs. basketball

The idea that man is a rational animal was taken away from the teachings of Aristotle. Popular science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein once disputed this, writing, “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.”

If I were using this space to throw in my two cents on the matter, I might suggest that man is an argumentative animal, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to refute that. However, I’m not here to ponder on the nature of man; I’m here to settle a seemingly unresolvable and admittedly dumb debate!

Debates are (and should be) central to our culture. Some are about serious matters, but there are plenty of others that most definitely are not. The Internet Age has thrown a new wrinkle into our discourse. We have become a society hell-bent on categorizing, listing, and above all, ranking pretty much everything. We generally want to know not just what is best, but also what is second best, and third best and 100th best. While it is undoubtedly an exhausting process, it holds the potential to be rewarding, or unbearably obnoxious, usually depending on the level of seriousness involved. Personally, I find the most fun rankings and debates to be the ones that involve a mixture of rational thought and irrational passion. So, with all of that in mind, I am rationally breaking down two sports that I’m irrationally passionate about, to appeal to both your inner-Aristotle and your inner-Heinlein, and to decide once, and for all, which sport is “better”: (American) football or basketball.

Before we begin, let me make it clear, I have no horse in this race; my personal sport of choice is soccer. This will be as objective as possible. Got all that? Okay, good.


Basketball holds the clear edge in this category, but it is closer than you think.

In general terms, football is difficult to grasp. To play a real game of football requires two things that aren’t always easy to come by, equipment and bodies. You need a ball, helmet and shoulder pads, at the very minimum, and to field a “team” you need at least eleven guys. In reality, though, you need a lot more guys than that and probably want more pads, gloves, shoes, mouth guards, and, you know, a uniform. Unofficially, though, it doesn’t take that much to engage in something resembling football. You need a few people, some space, a pigskin – or, hell, even a Nerfball will do – and you’re good to scrimmage. That’s enough to play two-hand touch, or tackle, if you’re a rough and tumble kid, playing in a vacant lot like I often was in my middle school years.

Basketball requires little in comparison. You need a ball, a hoop, and that’s pretty much it. You have that much, then you can go out to your driveway and practice your jump shot late into the night until it wakes up your daddy, just like the child actor who played Michael Jordan at the beginning of Space Jam. You don’t even have to wear anything in particular. Pistol Pete practiced jumpers and played one-on-one in jeans! Like football, you only need a few others to play a game of pickup. However, to play a game of organized basketball, you don’t need a bunch of equipment, just cheap, matching T-Shirts and you’re good to go.

Although the timelessness of throwing a football back and forth in your back yard gives football a fighting chance, make no mistake about it; basketball is a more tangible sport.

Advantage: BASKETBALL (Basketball leads 1-0)


Postseason (College)

Whether you like it or not, sports teams are generally remembered for their postseason performance. It is only fair that the sports themselves are measured in part by their postseason, too. Sports fans revere college football and college basketball for very different reasons. For college football, much of the appeal stems from the stakes involved in each and every game. College basketball, on the other hand, is more drawn out. There are more games, thus an individual win or an individual loss carries less weight.

Football (until next year at least) culminates in a series of unconnected bowl games for varying levels of prestige, bragging rights, money (though not for the players), and TV ratings. For the players, it’s a chance to play their very own championship regardless of how highly they’re ranked. For the fans, it provides a chance to watch more games over the holidays, leading up to the National Championship game (in which a team from the SEC usually wins) to decide the winner of it all.

The excitement for college basketball stems from the buildup of a season that progresses from preseason tournaments to a slew of (sometimes entertaining, sometimes not) non-conference games to a rivalry-infused conference season to the postseason. The postseason is composed of conference tournaments, in which any team can get on a hot streak and make the Big Dance, and the Big Dance itself, the NCAA tournament. The NCAA tournament is three weeks of total basketball madness. The first two days of it are the two least productive workday of the year in America.

The college football postseason is something that happens over the holidays. The college basketball postseason, though, basically is a holiday.

Advantage: BASKETBALL (Basketball leads 2-0)

Postseason (Pro)

The NBA VS NFL is a completely different animal, on a lot of levels, but particularly when comparing postseasons. The NBA playoffs are an exhausting two and a half month marathon that year in and year out gives us fascinating match-ups, memorable moments and some truly great games. Whereas a single-game playoff or championship allows the potential for flukes and surprises, the NBA Finals are a seven-game series that generally produces the definitively best team in the league.

With that being said, the NBA playoffs are not even on the same planet as the NFL playoffs. The NFL playoff consists of just 12 games, so each game is an event, and no league is better at “eventizing” its sport than the NFL. Super Bowl Sunday is just about the biggest sports event in the world. To put it in perspective, last year’s Game 7 of the NBA finals recorded its second-highest ratings in its history, drawing 26.3 million viewers. The Super Bowl drew 108.4 million viewers.

Advantage: FOOTBALL (Basketball leads 2-1)

Super Bowl


The last category probably already tipped my hand on this one. Not only did last year’s Super Bowl draw mammoth numbers, it was the most watched program of the entire year. It fell just short of setting an all-time record. In 2013, NBC’s Football Night in America was the second highest rated regular program behind, um, NCIS. This past weekend, the NFL’s pair of conference championships drew 51.3 million viewers (AFC Championship) and 55.9 million viewers (NFC Championship), respectively. The ratings disparity isn’t as steep in the collegiate ranks, though. Last year’s NCAA tournament championship between drew 23.4 million viewers, whereas this year’s BCS national championship garnered over 26 million viewers.

The NBA, however, isn’t close in terms of viewers – or attendees, for that matter. Out of all major sports leagues in the U.S., the NBA ranks third in average attendance per game (17,348 in 2012-2013) and fourth in total attendance (17,100,861 in 2011-2012). It should be noted, though, that the scales are tipped because there are less NFL games to attend, and because football stadiums are gargantuan.

I’m sure there are many, many kids out there, hoopin’, dreaming of becoming the next LeBron who could help even the playing field someday, but right now, basketball can’t make too strong of a case; not when it’s trailing the MLS in attendance.

Advantage: FOOTBALL (Basketball and Football are tied 2-2)

International Presence

The NFL and football in general have been making efforts to expand beyond the United States for quite some time now. From 1995-2007, there was a league called NFL Europe, which consisted of teams spread out across Germany, Netherlands, Spain and the UK. You might remember it from Madden or NFL Blitz. It didn’t quite work out. Nonetheless, the NFL has continued to spread the game by playing a series of games in London each year. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has repeatedly stated his interest in creating an expansion team there. Which, well, we’ll see how that goes. He dreams of football being not just America’s national pastime, but also the world’s. (There’s already something called IFAF World Championship of American Football, which you haven’t heard of, but, hey, the Internet has!)

The NBA/basketball is way ahead of the curve in this category. In 2014, basketball has been a global sport for a pretty long time now. Every NBA draft features at least one “can’t-miss” international player and many have panned out. Every international basketball tournament is a challenge for the U.S., rather than a cakewalk. By now, just about every team in the NBA has had an impact international player. One of the best players in NCAA basketball right now is an international player. Fans all over the world sport LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant jerseys.

When you start regularly seeing fans in London, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro sporting Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson jerseys, we can revisit this one.

Advantage: BASKETBALL (Basketball leads 3-2)

Olympic basketball


When it comes to dollar signs, the NFL squashes everything in its path. Roger Goodell has stated that he wants the league to reach $25 billion by the year 2027, which is a whole bunch of things, astonishing, absurd, and disgusting chief among them. But for now the league’s revenue is closer to $9.5 billion. Between the years 2014 and 2022, the league will make $5 billion just in television revenue. The NBA’s current deal, which expires in 2016, nets it $930 million. These are unfathomable amounts of money, so let’s break it down a little bit, by examining the NFL’s relationship with ESPN. From Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada in their book League of Denial: “The network pays the NFL – and by extension, its 32 franchises — $1.9 billion per year to broadcast Monday Night Football. That’s $112 million per game, nearly the average budget for the Harry Potter films”.

Wow. I could continue, but you get the idea.

Advantage: FOOTBALL (Football and Basketball are tied 3-3)

Cringe Factor

Sports, as thrilling and fulfilling as they can be, can be very dangerous, and moreover, unsettling. Basketball is no different. It isn’t what you would consider a contact sport per se, but it’s not not a contact sport either. Anytime athletic bodies are flying up and down the court, in the air and at each other, there’s a potential for something horrendous to happen. Don’t believe me? Type “Shaun Livingston” or “Kevin Ware” into YouTube. (I won’t provide the links and you can’t make me!)

Football, though, is far more violent. Collisions are happening all over the field, every single play. Legs are undercut, heads are slammed to the ground, bones are broken and ACL’s are torn. You never know when you could be watching someone play his last down. If that doesn’t make you cringe, I don’t know what will.

Wait a second, why is this a good thing again?

Advantage: FOOTBALL (Football leads 4-3)

Clinton Portis


The majority of sports are questions of skill, luck, wit and will, rather than ethics, but that isn’t always the case. Usually ethical problems don’t arise until you mix them with business and politics. Examples of this include the Tim Donaughey refereeing scandal, wealthy owners hi-jacking teams from their cities, owners leveraging unfair labor deals, rampant corruption in boxing, racist rules in nearly every sport until the 1940s. Very seldom is a sport itself considered an ethical dilemma. You can put boxing and mixed martial arts on the list, obviously. If you’re an animal activist, you might put horse racing on the list, too. It wasn’t until recently that football has joined that list, but it has. Growing evidence that there is a direct link between football and life debilitating diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy has put something of a black cloud over the game. What’s worse is the fact that the NFL knew about it and vehemently denied it for years before the league made an effort to make the game safer.

Collectively, it’s a lot harder to watch an NFL game – or any football game, for that matter – the same way anymore. The worst ethical dilemma you’ll have watching an NBA game is wondering if the players are benefitting from performance enhancing drugs, but as of now, that’s just speculation.

Advantage: BASKETBALL (Basketball and Football are tied 4-4)


I played my first season of fantasy football at the ripe age of nine, not because football sounded more appealing than other sports but because it was the only fantasy sport that I even knew existed. I was not alone. Little did I know, fantasy football – and to a lesser extent fantasy sports – was about to take off in a way I couldn’t imagine.. Within less than a decade, there were fantasy football columns on mainstream sports websites, there were people hired by major sports news outlets just to analyze fantasy sports, there was a sitcom that centered on a group of guys whose obsession was fantasy football. It became more than a hobby, it became a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. In 2011, Hollywood Reporter reported that there were 27 million players and that fantasy football had become a $1 billion industry.

This is my first season of fantasy basketball, and I encourage you to give it a shot if you haven’t already. Clearly, though, it doesn’t have the cultural heft of fantasy football.

Advantage: FOOTBALL (Football leads 5-4)

the league


We have already quantitatively delved into attendance – football games draw way more people that basketball – but we haven’t looked at it from qualitative standpoint yet. When it comes to actually attending a game, each side has its advantages and disadvantages. Both can be expensive; a wicked combination of tickets, parking, food, drinks, etc. is a con that affects both sports. On one hand, football gets a few extra points for tailgating. But one the other, football can be easily affected by the weather, which obviously isn’t always pleasant.

Both a football stadium and a basketball arena can have electric atmospheres, but with basketball, you’re generally closer to the action. The action is always more fluid in basketball, too. Yes, there are team timeouts and TV timeouts, but a football game features tenfold the amount of breaks in the action. Maybe this one is a matter of taste. Alas.

Advantage: BASKETBALL (Basketball and Football are tied 5-5)

Go KU !


To me, all sports are beautiful in some form or fashion. Even the most violent and repetitive sports have the potential to produce moments and actions that are aesthetically pleasing. Football and basketball constantly have these instances. A 40-yard heave by Cam Newton into the outstretched arms of Steve Smith; a full-court outlet pass by Kevin Love; the San Antonio Spurs’ passing when the whole team is clicking, Richard Sherman’s tip of the ball to the hands of Michael Smith. I enjoy all of these things; however, if I have to pick which one is more aesthetically pleasing, I choose basketball. With football, the beauty comes from an individual play. With basketball, it often comes from a succession of plays, a constantly fluctuating flow. The continuity appeals to me.

Advantage: BASKETBALL (Basketball leads 6-5)


A close game in any sport can be intense and unbearably nerve-racking. Since I can’t think of any statistic that signifies an intense game off the top of my head – don’t count advanced metrics out, though, there probably will be an “intense game” state some day! – I will refer to the dictionary. “Intense: of extreme force, degree, strength”. That pretty much settles it. Those descriptions immediately evoke football. It practically screams it, which is pretty intense… and football-y.

Advantage: FOOTBALL (Football and Basketball are tied 6-6)

Ray Lewis


This one is fun! But if we’re being honest, if baseball was in the conversation it would run away with it (and we’d talk about books, because baseball literature is magical!). Baseball wasn’t invited, though. It’s already undisputedly the most popular American sport of the 20th century; it will get over it. Basketball lays claim to Hoosiers, the quintessential underdog movie, and arguably the best sports movie of all time. That’s a steep hill for football to climb already. Then, you throw in classics like He Got Game, White Men Can’t Jump, Love and Basketball, plus likable kids’ flicks like Space Jam and Like Mike, and formulaic comfort food like Coach Carter and Glory Road, and you have a formidable lineup of basketball fiction. Don’t forget Hoop Dreams and The White Shadow either.

With football, on the serious/sentimental side you have Remember the Titans, Rudy, Any Given Sunday, Friday Night Lights, Brian’s Song, The Blind Side and We Are Marshall. Then, on the comedy side there’s The Longest Yard (the original, not the Adam Sandler travesty), Varsity Blues, The Replacements, The Waterboy and Little Giants.

At first glance, I want to say basketball; however, I left out football’s ace in the hole, Friday Night Lights the television series, one of the best TV shows of all time. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!

Advantage: FOOTBALL (Football leads Basketball 7-6)

Star Power

Right now, both leagues are pretty loaded with stars. The NFL has a slew of young and marketable quarterbacks in Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III (even if it wasn’t his year), in addition to aging icons like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Plus, established veterans from every position. Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, DeMaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Jimmy Graham, Luke Kuechly, Josh Gordon, Aldon Smith and Richard Sherman, the list could on and on. But in football, more guys than not are names, not faces.

The NBA is full of faces, recognizable and marketable faces. LeBron James has become the global icon that he always dreamed he would be. Kobe Bryant is a brand name worldwide, and he’s not even a top player in the league anymore. The same goes for Michael Jordan, except times ten. Around the league, you still see your vets and your stalwarts, like Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan, etc. But there’s a slew of young stars who haven’t even reached their full potential yet, such as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Paul George, James Harden, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and (hopefully) Derrick Rose. In addition, there are a handful of budding stars in the college ranks. See: Embiid, Joel; Parker, Jabari; Wiggins, Andrew.

So, as I said, both leagues have their share of stars, but I tend to lean towards the league with an abundance of faces you know, or will know soon.

Advantage: BASKETBALL (Basketball and Football are tied)

NBA stars


With both leagues full of stars, it would appear that both have potential for bright futures. Perhaps, perhaps not. The NBA, as terrific as the product has been in recent years, isn’t on a current track to be anywhere as close as popular as the NFL. At the college level, both sports are strong. At the youth level, though, numbers in football are starting to drop off, and at a not-insignificant rate. Between 2010 and 2012, Pop Warner, the nation’s largest youth football program, saw participation drop 9.5%. More and more parents are becoming alarmed at the clear link between football and brain damage. Last year, over 4,500 ex-players sued the NFL for their negligence in dealing with concussions and other health related issues. The league settled with the players for $765 million, but there could be more persecution and lawsuits to come. In short, football’s future is far from secure. Basketball on the other hand is rich in talent, popular overseas and is at no current risk of ceasing to exist anytime soon.


FINAL: Basketball wins 8 to 7.

And that, as they say, is the game.

Special thanks to my sports-obsessed buddies, Blake Chapman and Myles Phillip, for their much appreciated contributions to this undertaking, and thank you, loyal readers, for bearing with me through this arduous, but hopefully rewarding debate.


Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future. 


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