Super Hype (And Related B.S.)

I love football. I mean, I really love football. I played the sport (badly), I coached the sport (reasonably well), and I am  a depressingly committed football stats nerd. The NFL is the highest expression of this most American pass-time and, as such, has my undying (customer) loyalty. Or so it believes. The Super Bowl will be played this Sunday (On NBC, please don’t sue me NFL), and I will watch all of the game and most of the commercials. But this year, I watch in protest of an institution that has, in the time-honored phrase, grown too big for its britches.

For some time now, the small-minded folks in charge of the NFL have built a marketing machine on the shoulders of their very much larger-minded predecessors. The league and its owners are convinced that the NFL is a great irreplaceable and immortal colossus, immune to competing forms of entertainment, and thoroughly entrenched in America’s psyche. The result is a hype machine that has blackballed customers, blackmailed taxpayers, and made a joke out of the on-field product.

It wasn’t always like this. The league used to be one of the most accessible of all major sports. NFL Films was a revolutionary idea, and the highlight packages and playbook shows that it fueled inspired many to play, coach, and watch the sport. Greed however, caught up with the the NFL in a big way, greed and a notion that because they were so popular they could do no wrong. Television contracts caught up with the NFL in a big way, television contracts and the idea that splitting up a bigger pie in smaller pieces was more important than serving a better pie to more people. Football is still a great sport, but the leadership of the game’s highest expression have lost their way. Below are five reasons that the NFL sucks, five reasons that could eventually lead the league, as far-fetched as this may seem, to fail some day.

  1. Stadiums-At some point in our country’s evolution, enough folks will get tired of being blackmailed by major firms…blackmailed and then stabbed in the back. It is bad enough when a producer and major employer extorts tax breaks from a state before eventually moving half of its operation away (as Boeing is doing to Kansas now). The NFL has made a common practice of demanding hundreds of millions in outright taxes, and billions in public loan guarantees, from citizens for the privilege of those folks keeping their team. Stadiums, I should point out, which are the only capital asset that an NFL franchise owns. Building a stadium with public funds, it should also be noted, is no guarantee that the league won’t pull a Boeing and leave anyway; just ask the citizens of Jacksonville and St. Louis how comfortable they feel about their teams at the moment. Corporate welfare, anyone?
  2. Exclusivity-Exclusive rights are common in athletics, and reasonable in the context of the business model. But the NFL took the model to breathtaking heights in the last 10-15 years on all sorts of merchandise. This includes the league’s attempt to dominate all applications of fantasy football and video games that show its brand; applications that bring in and keep fans connected to the product. It is, of course, easy for the league to participate in the hype over Madden Football, when it is the only video game that can wear all of the colors and display all of the names associated with the league. (Full disclosure, I hate Madden, a game whose developers have refused to improve substantially in the artificial absence of competition.)
  3. Access-In another matter related to exclusivity, the NFL has determined that folks (like me) who don’t like satellite TV are not good enough to be customers. I am a Browns fan, and unless I subscribe to satellite TV, or live in Cleveland, I cannot have the privilege of watching my team suck for 10-12 games per year. You might say the league is sparing me needless anguish, but I want the choice! I am a cable TV customer, and will remain so unless and until the format no longer exists. I have seen my team play three times in the last three seasons. Using me to expand satellite subscriptions while using me to push the shabby and pointless NFL Network into other cable networks is not customer friendly behavior.
  4. Hype-The NFL is a great league, and football is a great sport. The NFL, however, is not…absolutely not…an expression of patriotism, an analogue for America, the greatest thing since sliced bread, or the second coming of the Messiah. And every game between 5-0 teams, and every playoff game, and every play, and every player born after 1985, are not the greatest ever. The NFL is solely and exclusively responsible for the overcooked, hyperbolic, overzealous, over-hyped, and generally substance-free reporting, commentating, and punditizing that goes on during its broadcasts, pre-game shows, and highlight vehicles. It is ridiculous, and the only message it sends the audience is the one received when they (like me last weekend) watch a truly awful display of pattycake-pattycake (at the Pro-Bowl) and wonder why they wasted their time.
  5. Product-What am I watching anymore, I wonder? I believe in the evolution of the game to improve player safety (although larger helmets and the full use of mouthpieces and other protective gear would do more than restrictive rules and itchy-trigger-fingered refs). What I don’t like is the rampant inconsistency in the calls made by refs, and the rules made by the competition committee. A couple of seasons back, Calvin Johnson made a catch that everyone…everyone…who saw it ruled (in their minds) a touchdown. Competitors, fans, coaches…even the typically useless color pundits thought it was a score. Everyone agreed it was a touchdown accept for the NFL, who not only found a way to justify the call on the field, but made sure the rules were changed that off-season to enshrine the call. It stands as a perfect example of the tone-deaf manner about which the league handles its business, and the on-field product has suffered as a result. Players and coaches need consistency to play both fast and safe, and the NFL has provided none.

I will watch the game this Sunday, and the NFL will remain the biggest game in town into the foreseeable future. But I watch it under protest, and offer this reminder to the league; America’s pass-time wasn’t always football, and nowhere is it written that it will remain thus, or that the NFL will stand is its highest expression.

The Rational Middle wishes the New York Giants and New England Patriots good luck and a safe game…