The Super Bowl long ago outgrew its sport, transforming from a championship game into a national holiday. But that doesn’t mean the NFL is America’s passion play.

The Super Bowl long ago outgrew its sport, transforming from a championship game into a national holiday.

But that doesn’t mean the NFL is America’s passion play.

President Obama likes to poke fun at Cubs fans. “People aren’t watching the game,” he told ESPN two years ago. “It’s not serious.”

The same holds true, multiplied XV times over, for the Super Bowl, with millions of fans semi-watching for the party, not the game. Many even prefer the commercials.

The NFL doesn’t care. One set of eyes equals any other set, even if those eyes focus more on the guacamole dip and Danica Patrick’s latest GoDaddy.com commercial than Drew Brees. One viewer counts the same as another in the Nielsen ratings.

But when people vote with their pocketbook, baseball still stands toe-to-toe with the NFL, earning $6.8 billion to the NFL’s $7.8 billion in 2009 and closing the gap more each year. And when you factor in lasting impact and how the pros measure up to the amateurs, baseball still remains the dominant pro sport. Consider:

Before playing Dallas in the Cowboys’ new $1.3 billion stadium, Bears tight end Greg Olsen enthused: “It’s going to be like college, playing in those big stadiums where it’s really loud. It’s going to be a cool experience.”

If the NFL is the be-all and end-all, how come college football outdraws the NFL? The average attendance in the 12-team SEC tops that of every NFL team except Dallas. Three Big Ten teams average more than 105,000 fans at home.

Nebraska has sold out every home game since 1962. Only eight of 32 NFL games sold 100 percent of their tickets in the season’s first two weeks this year, according to ESPN.com attendance figures. Baseball plays 10 times as many games, greatly reducing their individual value, yet three teams (Phillies, Twins and Red Sox) will sell more than 100 percent of their seats for all 81 games. The Cleveland Indians once sold out 455 consecutive games.

NFL officials say 20 percent of all games could be blacked out on local TV this year (if games aren’t sold out 72 hours in advance). Attendance is projected to drop for the third year in a row, even though TV ratings are up dramatically. Commissioner Roger Goodell blamed part of the problem on things like the NFL Network’s RedZone, which shows every touchdown from every game.

But that’s where football gets its popularity. Baseball is intensely regional. Most fans follow one team and one team only. NFL fans will watch almost any team if it’s a close game. But that doesn’t mean they care as much as baseball fans. Los Angeles hasn’t had an NFL team in 15 years and some fans like it because it means they can watch the best games on local TV rather than getting stuck with the Raiders and Rams each week.

Gambling pushes up football’s TV numbers. Gamblers bet $1.1 billion on football last year, just on legal bets in Las Vegas alone.

And then there is the impact that MLB and the NFL leave.

Baseball celebrates its history. The NFL pretends it began in 1966, virtually ignoring the titles won before the Super Bowl era, including eight each by the Bears and Packers. Can you imagine baseball forgetting Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio the way the NFL does Don Hutson and Bronko Nagurski?

Football steals many of its best ideas from baseball. It’s oldest teams were often named after the baseball teams in the same cities, from the Bears (Cubs) to the Giants (Giants) and Lions (Tigers). Fantasy football, perhaps its best-ever fan innovation, was copied from baseball.

The best baseball movies star Robert DeNiro (Bang The Drum Slowly), Robert Redford (The Natural) and Kevin Costner (Bull Durham). The best football movie condemns the sport and stars one-hit-wonder country singer Mac Davis and Nick Nolte (North Dallas Forty).

Baseball gave us Jackie Robinson. Football gave us Fritz Pollard.

Baseball gave us Branch Rickey. The NFL gave us Hall of Fame Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, who said: “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” And this was after Jackie Robinson.

Any true Cubs fan can tell you that Ernie Banks hit 512 home runs, even though he’s not in the top 20 all-time, and even White Sox fans know that Sammy Sosa once hit 66 homers for the Cubs. But who knows how many yards Walter Payton ran for?

Before NFL owners, as expected, lock out the players next summer in an effort to cut salaries, they should think about living in a world where Sosa’s 66 homers is more memorable than Payton’s 16,726 yards. The NFL is the best game in town, especially for casual fans on TV, but it’s not the only game in town. It’s not with us every day during the summer like baseball. It shares the stage with college football in the fall. It can be replaced.

But only if it thinks it can’t. The NFL’s TV ratings for opening week were its highest in 23 years. The NFL, even in a down economy, is as strong as ever. Its weakness is believing its own hype.

Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or mtrowbridge@rrstar.com.