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Football nation

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A few weeks ago, the great Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe posited that his city, one of the last holdouts, was now officially a football town. For 140 years, the 'Hub of the Universe' had reserved the deepest of its sports love for the game of baseball, from the National League's powerhouse Braves of the late 1800s through the Americans and Pilgrims, the forerunners of the Red Sox. Generations of fans who followed the likes of Ruth and Speaker, Williams and Pesky, Yaz and Tony C., Fisk and Lynn and even Manny and Pedro had held a stranglehold on the market that even three Patriots Super Bowl wins couldn't wrest away. Then came September of 2011, followed by what we may someday refer to as 'the Valentine year.' And just like that, the Sox (and baseball in general) were relegated to second fiddle status.

I'm not sure I buy completely into Ryan's premise, though there's no doubt that at this moment in time the Patriots are indeed the favored son, but a good managerial hire, a couple of decent starting pitchers, and a run at the playoffs in 2013 may once against restore the luster of Beantown baseball. Until there's a new version of 'Cheers' in which Sam Malone is a former Patriots tight end instead of a Sox reliever, I'll keep believing that Boston is, at its core, a baseball town.

What Ryan is absolutely right about is the fact that baseball long ago lost the top dog status on the national scene. The Super Bowl has become a virtual national holiday, fantasy football is the hottest game this side of Farmville, and even pre-season NFL games outdraw most other sports.

When and why did baseball slip in the national consciousness? I think it's been a gradual process that may have started with ABC's decision in the early 1970s to experiment with prime time, weeknight football. The Monday Night franchise has been a goldmine, and given the success of this year's weekly Thursday match-ups you have to wonder if the NFL won't soon add more nightly broadcasts to the schedule. While football was growing and becoming an even better television product, thanks to better camera angles, audio breakthroughs that put the viewer in the middle of the action and tech advances like the computer-generated first down marker, baseball became even longer, slower and less enjoyable to watch. Over-managing, a huge increase in pitching changes and lengthy batter's box rituals all contributed to extending the average game well past the three hour mark. Combine that with baseball's foolish insistence on playing World Series games at night, so East Coast viewers have to guzzle coffee to make it to the seventh inning stretch, and you begin to not only lose your core audience but fail to develop young fans, many of whom already lack the attention span to appreciate a game that doesn't involve constant rapid action and high-impact collisions. Throw in the game's shameful steroid scandal, which owners (and many media members) cast a blind eye to, and you've got a game that is the national pastime in name alone.

Football doesn't do everything right - witness the recent replacement referee imbroglio - but they have done a superior job marketing their game and making it a far better television product than baseball. While I still think a resurgent Red Sox team could capture the hearts and minds of New England fans once again, on the national stage the battle is lost. Our true national game is played on Sundays and Mondays and Thursdays and some Saturdays.

Rich Kimball is radio the play-by-play announcer for UMaine Black Bear Football and the host of 'Downtown with Rich Kimball,' which airs weekdays from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on Fox Sports Maine (AM 910 in Bangor) and streaming live at www.sportscentralbangor.com

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