By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Baseball is considered America’s pastime, but more accurately, it’s America’s past time. From whatever prism you view it through – ratings, revenue, popularity – the NFL undeniably rules the land of American sports.
How has the NFL become so deeply seeped into our collective consciousness?
Quite simply, the NFL produces the highest quality live entertainment product in America, satiating viewer’s predilection for instant gratification sprinkled with a touch of bloodlust. It’s a league of oversized men performing kinetic feats that defy nature, governed by intelligent capitalists with lofty, yet attainable goals.
The once-a-week format simplifies the viewing experience, making each week’s slate of games must-see, appointment television, and the ratings are staggering. NBC’s Sunday Night Football has become the No. 1 television show in America, and the last four Super Bowls were the most viewed events in American television history.
With the guarantee of hundreds of millions captive eyeballs fixed on high-definition television sets, mobile devices and tablets, television networks respond with billions of dollars for broadcasting rights. Marketing executives then respond with multi-million dollar advertising campaigns. Combine all of that with a Collective Bargaining Agreement that ensures labor peace and keeps player costs (relatively) low through 2020, and the gravy train rolls on.
For fans, the NFL is the ultimate soap opera. Every week, a fresh set of narratives and dramatic plot lines unfold – naturally or fabricated – league wide. Injuries, fines, rivalries, and player matchups get fans frothing at the mouth, ready to cheer for the guys dressed in the laundry they like, and jeer those who aren’t.
Men love football because it makes them feel tough, but the game itself is rooted in math. We’re not talking about category theory or multivariable calculus, but simple arithmetic and geometry. How can coaches scheme a way to get more people to this point on the field faster than their opponent? Or, how can they align their players to get an advantageous one-on-one matchup down the field?
Despite the copious amount of hours coaches spend in dimly lit rooms watching film to glean tendencies and design game plans to exploit perceived weaknesses, games typically come down to one critical moment. Those failed moments create ammunition for armchair quarterbacks aided by hindsight to dissect every minuscule detail ad nauseum on radio airwaves and the Internet. It’s a twisted addiction for everyone involved.
Despite its strong stranglehold, the NFL shield is not bulletproof.
I’ve spoken with a high-ranking official in person at 345 Park Avenue about the challenges facing the league, and the game day stadium experience is near the top of the list. With fans able to comfortably watch games at home on high-definition televisions and avoid paying (on average) $30 to park, $7 for a beer, not deal with drunks or wonky wi-fi (a necessity for the estimated 35M fantasy football players), or wait in line to use the restroom, what’s their incentive to get off the couch?
The league is working on ways to enhance the stadium experience by giving fans exclusive video footage from the locker room. Chances are this will amount to nothing more than a public relations friendly rah-rah speech. But in reality, it doesn’t matter either way. If current season ticket holders opt to not renew their tickets, many teams in the league have a waiting list. Next in line, please.
Player safety is a growing concern. 4,500 players are part of a lawsuit against the league that is set for mediation on September 3rd. Over the past few seasons, new rules – moving kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, and the new “helmet rule” – have been put in place for player safety purposes. The bottom line is, football is a violent game where participant’s job descriptions are to essentially have a series of car accidents every weekend.
Even if feeder systems see a decrease in participation levels, football will continue to create opportunities for young men that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Only 2.4% of college football players make it to the NFL, so what could the true net effect be? With the possibility of a free college education, and with a little luck, an average annual salary of $2M, there will be plenty of people willing to take on such occupational hazards.
The NFL has an increasing image issue to address. Since the conclusion of the 2012 season, 47 players have been arrested, none more grisly than Aaron Hernandez. Despite that pending trial, 68,756 fans will wedge elbow-to-elbow in Gilette Stadium for every home game.
Peter King pointed out that while the behavior is clearly unacceptable and is something the Players Association is striving to corral, the arrest numbers may not be as egregious as perceived.
Clearly, the positives outweigh the negatives in the NFL. No group is more averse to risk than corporate America, yet industry giants like Pepsi and Microsoft spend $228M and $80M annually to partner with the NFL. As I said earlier, pairing worldclass athletes with Ivy League educations is a perfect partnership.
Everyone has a story, a visceral moment that connected them to the NFL, which they’re always willing to share in vivid detail.
My connection goes back to a 1985 Chicago Bears team that revolutionized how the NFL was marketed to consumers. I can vividly recall just weeks before my 10th birthday, writing “Super Bowl XX Chicago Bears 46, New England Patriots 10” with a red felt pen on a label I affixed to a Betamax tape – which still exists – to commemorate the Bears glorious Super Bowl Championship. Hook, line and sinker.
27 years later, my allegiance has never been stronger.
Why do you love the NFL?
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin