The Revolution Will Be Televised
The NFL has been riding an unbelievable wave of momentum for 15 years now, and one can't help but wonder when the whole thing is going to crest and come crashing back down to earth.
There's no denying it. The NFL is currently operating at an unprecedented level of popularity. By almost any measure -- attendance, television ratings, revenue, number of manufactured storylines at the most recent Super Bowl -- professional football has never been healthier. Yet, this summer, the NFL is headed toward its most critical offseason in recent memory. The league's collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in a year, and, as commissioner Paul Tagliabue recently acknowledged in his annual State of the League address, "I don't think negotiations (between the league and the players union) are going very well."
Of course, Tagliabue's ominous speech was easily buried under two weeks' worth of Super Bowl hype. If a new agreement between players and owners isn't reached soon, however, the 2006 season will surely be overshadowed by the league's uncertain financial future. The strict regulations that help make the NFL so competitive and, hence, appealing to fans -- like a "hard" salary cap that limits player salaries and equitable revenue sharing among all teams -- could potentially be thrown out the window. Though disaster scenarios along those lines seem unlikely under any new collective bargaining agreement, if the NFL's financial landscape changes even slightly then miraculous turnaround seasons, where teams like the 2004 San Diego Chargers go 12-4 only a year after finishing 4-12, will be distant memories.
Clearly, the NFL is at a transition stage. And despite the fact that professional football has never been more popular, Commissioner Tagliabue and his colleagues shouldn't be concerned only with the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations, but also the quality of their product as a whole. The presentation of the game itself, particularly on television, has been slowly waning for a number of years, and the deterioration of the major networks' telecasts has begun to negatively affect the way the games are viewed. Whether the NFL even perceives this to be a problem is doubtful, for, as long as the dollars keep pouring in by the billions, I suspect that the quality of broadcasts will be an overlooked point of concern. But ultimately, the health of the league depends on the fan's enjoyment, and the vast majority of fans consume the NFL's product by watching it on TV.
ABC's presentation of Super Bowl XL was a perfect example of everything that's currently wrong with the NFL on television. On over a dozen plays, mostly in the first half, ABC barely captured the action on the field, often cutting into plays after the ball had been snapped. The reasons for this lazy coverage of the game itself were varied, and all were absurd. Uninformative sideline reports, dramatized close-ups of players and coaches standing on the sideline, and even an extended shot of a fan wearing a Matt Hasselbeck jersey were all responsible for plays that were almost missed.
These incidents typify the biggest problem with modern NFL telecasts: an increasing de-emphasis of what actually occurs on the field. Part of this, unsurprisingly, is influenced by money. The amount that TV networks pay to televise NFL games is simply staggering. Beginning with the 2006 season, NBC will pay the NFL $600 million to televise one Sunday night game per week. Similarly, CBS and Fox pay several billion dollars for their AFC and NFC coverage privileges. And there's only one way to make all that money back: advertising, and lots of it. So the networks rush to commercial breaks and drag them out as long as they possibly can, to the detriment of covering the games themselves. During ABC's Monday Night Football telecast of the Steelers-Colts week twelve match-up, for example, the network returned from commercial right as a Mike Vanderjagt field goal sailed through the uprights. Twice during the AFC Championship game, CBS hurried to a break before either Steelers coach Bill Cowher or Broncos coach Mike Shanahan opted to challenge a ruling on the field. Both plays were critical, but to the viewer their impact was lessened by CBS's hastiness to pay the bills.
If this were the only crime that the major networks committed, then it'd be an irritating yet understandable fact of business. But it's not too much to assert that football itself has become a dwindling priority during NFL telecasts. When at their worst, the networks morph their game presentations into over-simplified human-interest stories. While I wasn't exactly an unbiased viewer of Super Bowl XL, I'll acknowledge that Jerome Bettis' Detroit homecoming storyline was probably a little too ubiquitous for non-Steelers fans. Another egregious example of the human-interest fixation came during New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi's return from a stroke against the Buffalo Bills in week eight. The ESPN Sunday night announcing crew was so enamored with Bruschi's return that they talked about it -- nearly uninterrupted -- through one stretch of the game that featured two turnovers within only a few plays. In both cases, those turnovers were mentioned only as a casual aside, well after they had happened.
Then we have the Indianapolis Colts' 13-0 start, which was shamefully overshadowed as ESPN was instead captivated for the better part of eighteen months by troubled wide receiver Terrell Owens. The whole saga, reached its nadir (I'm hoping) when Michael Irvin came up with this nugget of football brilliance: Owens' Philadelphia Eagles would be undefeated (the season wasn't halfway over at the time) if Brett Favre were their quarterback instead of Donovan McNabb. ESPN later set up a now infamous interview with Owens, in which he said that Irvin gave "a good assessment" of his team's situation. Irvin couldn't have caused more damage to the Eagles' locker room if he'd poisoned the players' water bottles, but this is what currently qualifies as educated football analysis.
There's no doubt that there are numerous problems with the way that the NFL is presented on television, but how much a threat to the leagues' success are these problems? And can the NFL even do anything about them? Perhaps the fact that the NFL Network has acquired rights to air regular season games next year is a quiet (and telling) sign that the league is set to straighten things out on their own. With more teams than any other major American sports league, the NFL has a massive, partisan fan base to draw from. Additionally, the NFL is the most convenient major sport to follow (along with NASCAR), as the teams play the same day every week, save the Monday night game. So it's hard to believe that people will just turn off their televisions en masse because they're forced to sit through endless CSI promos in between plays instead of hearing actual analysis. Still, the NFL has been riding an unbelievable wave of momentum for fifteen years now (especially these last five), and one can't help but wonder when the whole thing is going to crest and come crashing back down to earth.
In the 1990s, it's worth noting, the other three major American sports leagues seemed also to be flying high at one point or another, and all three eventually stumbled. Ominously, labor disputes were at the heart of all their struggles (with last year's NHL lockout lowering the bar to a new level). The NBA also suffered greatly once Michael Jordan retired, and professional baseball was hit with the steroid scandal. The NHL, too, became bogged down by its glacial style of play and was forced to return to its niche status amongst sports fans.
Specifically, it was this style, and botched attempts at making it television-friendly, that hastened the NHL's decline. Hockey fans will likely always remember when Fox attempted to turn a unique, gritty, yet graceful sport into a neon comic book with highlighted pucks and digitally added red beelines that tailed behind slap shots and one-timers. For a sport that was once on the rise in the eyes of sports fans, it added an unnecessary, amateurish quality to the NHL's presentation, hurting the sport's image for fair-weather fans.
In some ways, it seems that NFL fans, too, are beginning to catch on to the perpetual inadequacy of the NFL's televised presentation. While hard to quantify, it appears as though the disapproval rate for network announcers has never been higher. One barometer is longtime Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman's annual TV commentator rankings. He rates announcing crews on a five-star scale and, for the last four years, there have been no crews that rated perfectly, and many fell to two-stars or lower. The emails he receives (and subsequently publishes) from readers all strongly echo his critical sentiments.
Others are also catching on. NFL.com's Gregg Easterbrook indirectly articulated the problems experienced by much of the NFL's television outlets by praising ESPN's weekly highlight show, NFL Primetime. In lamenting the show's end after the Monday Night Football broadcast moved from ABC to ESPN, Easterbrook wrote, "for 19 years, it offered highlights and intelligent commentary on every NFL contest, roughly 5,000 games in that span. Primetime was all football, no filler -- no celebrities, no dancing bears. Primetime altered America's approach to football by raising the bar for understanding the game." Sadly, all of these things are what nearly every NFL telecast is left lacking.
Despite this lack, it's become a ritual for many sports fans to spend their fall Sundays on the couch, watching professional football. Television is an undeniably sizeable part of the NFL's burgeoning empire, but if the CBA negotiations continue to go poorly and lead to a baseball-like financial structure of unequal revenue sharing, it could open the floodgates for further problems. Should the NFL vacate its position at the pinnacle of sporting importance in this country, the league won't benefit from the same unquestioned loyalty that they've enjoyed throughout the last decade. Given the state of televised pro football today, if people need to search for reasons to watch the NFL, the broadcasts themselves certainly won't be one of them.