by Chris Foss
When we think of 1968, sports don’t usually come to mind. That year, two once-in-a-generation political and moral leaders were gunned down in their primes. LBJ was driven from the presidency at the height of the Vietnam War, but he was still luckier than nearly 17,000 troops who came home in body bags. The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. Richard Nixon became President despite failing to win a majority of the popular vote. Hippies and activists across the country occupied administration buildings, demanding reform and change. The Olympics were overshadowed by demonstrations of Black Power and a violent crackdown against Mexico’s own youth movement by its ruling political party’s secret police.
But the games went on, and in the realm of sports fandom, we might remember 1968 for something else. This was the first time when one could definitively say, based off TV ratings, that the NFL championship (by now called the Super Bowl) surpassed the World Series. Was this the year, then, that football overtook baseball as “America’s Game”? I used the Sports Illustrated Vault online to see if that was true from their point of view. I focused on the cover, the magazine’s most prominent feature.
Nowadays more noteworthy for “the jinx”, it was once a big deal to be on an SI cover. In 1968, there were 51 covers. Of these, 31 (about 60%) of the covers went to football (12 covers), baseball (11), and basketball (eight). Hockey got just two covers, whereas golf had four. Car racing got two, and horse racing checked in with two more. Winter and Summer Olympics were held in 1968, and their total haul was four (two apiece for each Olympics). There were a few miscellaneous covers as well: the swimsuit issue, of course, but also one apiece for swimming, tennis, cross country, skiing, and “The Black Athlete—A Shameful Story.”
To therefore declare football the nation’s top sport would seem as flawed as giving a presidential candidate all the votes in a winner-take-all primary. The gridiron was featured on 23.5% of covers, with baseball right on its heels at a 21.5% clip. Interestingly, the majority of SI covers, therefore, were on neither football nor baseball. Judging on covers alone, basketball was in a clear third place in the sporting pantheon as dictated by SI. It was far enough behind, still, not to be in a position to challenge football and baseball, with eight covers compared to their combined 23. America, or at least the SI writers, had not yet clearly split the sports world into three, to say nothing of a “Big Four”, given hockey’s dismal showing. (Come on, NHL, what was going on? In the early years of SI, that low number would have put it alongside cat and dog shows in the cover competition.)
To decide a true winner in the cover wars between football and baseball, meanwhile, I think it’s more conclusive to look more closely at the dates of the covers, which were:
Football: Jan. 8, Jan. 22, Jul. 15, Aug. 12, Sept. 9, Sept. 16, Oct. 14, Oct. 28, Nov. 11, Nov. 25, Dec. 9, Dec. 16
Baseball: Mar. 11, Apr. 15, May 6, May 27, Jun. 17, Jul. 8, Jul. 29, Aug. 19, Sept. 2, Sept. 23, Oct. 7
Naturally, the vast majority of these covers were issued during these sports’ regular seasons and playoffs, which in 1968 for football ran until the Super Bowl on January 14, then picked up again on the combined college/pro opening weekend of September 14-15 and ran through the rest of the calendar year. Baseball’s season, meanwhile, got underway on April 10 and the World Series finished on October 10, with the Detroit Tigers clinching a 4-3 series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. That leaves for football the Jan. 22, Jul. 15, Aug. 12, and Sept. 9 articles, and for baseball the Mar. 11 article as falling outside the season calendar. Furthermore, SI columnists gave the pigskin two clear offseason covers (Jul. 15 and Aug. 12), versus just one (Mar. 11) for baseball. Thus just by judging the cover optics, it seems as though football was, by a slight margin, America’s game in 1968.
This is not an overwhelming margin, by any means, nor did Super Bowl II achieve a significantly higher rating than did the World Series in 1968. It also was not clear at that time that baseball would suffer such a precipitous decline in its popularity over the ensuing decades. The late 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of multipurpose stadiums, both domed and open air, with Astroturf, to accommodate both baseball and football teams. The NBA, while growing and joined in competition by the American Basketball Association, comparatively languished in small, dingy arenas which generally seated anywhere from 10 to 15,000 fans, as did the NHL. The 1970s, furthermore, would be a troubled time for basketball, as the NBA arguably suffered through a period of poor executive leadership, bad TV contracts, and the unfortunate perception that most of its players were substance abusers. On the other hand, baseball would continue to have respectable TV ratings in the 1970s and 1980s. While its audience slowly but steadily dwindled for the World Series, that of the Super Bowl continued to climb, and has especially soared over the last fifteen years as total viewership exceeded 100 million for the first time. World Series games, meanwhile, now typically draw about 15 million viewers. This is a nice number for broadcast networks whose non-sports programming struggles to draw that many eyeballs on a nightly basis, but a far cry from baseball’s glory days.
An interesting experiment for a serious student of journalism at the college or graduate level would be to write a paper analyzing the content of articles from a given year, not just the covers. Would my theory hold up? 1968 is an especially interesting and challenging year to try and comprehend, not just for the general historian of the U.S. and the world, but for the sports historian, given the political situation going on in the country, as well as the fact that the sports calendar was somewhat distorted by the Olympics. Finally, it’s important to point out, full disclosure, that I wasn’t alive in 1968. What about those of you out there who were? Was football becoming America’s Game by 1968? Or do you think it was still all about the sandlot? I’d love to hear from you (post a comment below or write me at email@example.com).
In all, the takeaway is that even a year’s worth of sports coverage provides the sports fan—as well as the historian—a mere snapshot of an era, just a piece of the puzzle in terms of understanding long-term structural trends in the growth and decline of leagues and sports. Heroes and sports, however, were already surprisingly diverse. Basketball was hot on the heels of the big leagues in cover popularity. The feline and canine set so in vogue in, for example, the 1954-55 covers were no longer around. Athletes of color populated numerous covers. Controversial subjects led off a couple of issues, showing that the SI writers did not just stick their heads in the sand in this challenging year. Even a couple of women—albeit one in a swimsuit—were on the cover. Yes, football was the “winner” of the 1968 cover competition, but the real winner was the fan interested in a diverse array of people and sports.
 Nixon won 43.4% of the vote to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 42.7%. Conservative Democrat George Wallace ran as an independent and came in with 13.5% of the vote. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/showelection.php?year=1968
 See http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2014/02/01/will-super-bowl-xlviii-tv-viewership-set-a-new-record-poll-ratings-history/233590/ for a history of Super Bowl ratings, and http://www.baseball-almanac.com/ws/wstv.shtml for a history of World Series ratings. In 1968, the Super Bowl achieved a 36.8 rating and a 68 share, meaning that out of all TV-equipped households, 36.8% were tuned in to the Super Bowl, and that out of all TVs that were turned on to one program or another, 68% were tuned into the game. (They come up with this number via a complex system of surveys). The World Series, meanwhile, obtained a 22.8 rating and a 57 share later that year.
 Go to http://www.si.com/vault/issues/1960#y1968 to see the covers—and read the articles within—for yourself!
 The jinx dates at least back to 1978, according to one source: see http://www.rantsports.com/clubhouse/2014/10/07/top-10-cases-of-the-si-cover-jinx/
 See the Pro Football Reference, College Football Reference, and Baseball Reference websites, and their sub-sites, to dig into these details: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/, http://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/, and http://www.baseball-reference.com/.
 Madison Square Garden in New York was an obvious exception, but more typical were Portland’s Memorial Coliseum, Seattle’s Coliseum (where star Spencer Haywood was infamously injured slipping on a wet spot caused by a leaky roof), Richfield Coliseum just outside of Cleveland, and McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. Even hallowed Chicago Stadium and Boston Garden dated from the 1920s, but were still in use as NBA and NHL arenas into the mid-1990s!