The NFL has dominated American professional sports for so long, it's almost impossible to imagine a world in which it struggles for attention. But we can try...
Author Jason Gay Illustration Barry Blitt
As summer turns to fall and America goes berserk for the Major League Lacrosse playoffs, the Vuelta a España bike race and the return of the Chinese Badminton Association—better known, of course, as the CBA—we’d like to suggest sharing a little love with another sports league, one that desperately needs your support.
That acronym stands for National Football League. The group has been around since 1920, when it launched as the American Professional Football Conference, before changing its name two years later. And you know what football is, right? No, it’s not soccer—that’s a common mistake in America, where every family huddles around the television watching soccer every night. Football is the game with the helmets and oblong brown ball and the guy who calls himself Ocho Cinco. Yeah, you remember it. It’s on Sunday afternoons. That’s right, the sport that comes not long after Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer.
Football needs your help. It doesn’t have the glamour of badminton or the household names of lacrosse, like legendary attackman John Grant Jr., who won two consecutive MLL MVPs with the Rochester Rattlers. People don’t grow up following football teams the way they do European cycling squads, with children marching off to school wearing spandex outfits advertising their chosen teams, be they Rabobank, Silence-Lotto or our personal favorite, Liquigas.
Football is fighting for attention. It’s so unpopular, in fact, teams play only 16 regular season games a year. Basketball plays 82 and baseball a brisk 162. Fan interest is static. Take the case of the New England Patriots—they’re one of the best teams, with the quarterback who’s married to Gisele. Last year the Patriots drew 550,048 fans, filling 100 percent of the seats in their 68,756 seat stadium. But the previous year, they drew the exact same number. That, my friends, is known as zero growth.
There are other dispiriting signs.
Each year, more and more football followers are so dissatisfied with the real product the NFL puts out, they’re forced to create their own “fantasy” teams. Meanwhile, the NFL also runs an embarrassing sideshow each year called the “draft,” in which clean-cut college stars are selected by teams and forced against their will to travel to distant cities to play the game they love. This draft is attended by thousands of angry fans, who drink beer and loudly boo the players who get picked. Usually, they are dressed in green and white, signifying an allegiance with a team called the New York Jets.
But what’s most troubling is the behavior of the league’s biggest stars. Last year, Plaxico Burress, one of football’s most gifted wide receivers, was caught wearing sweatpants to a nightclub. We’re not sure how you were raised, but we’ve never worn sweatpants to a nightclub. White polyester, silk shirts and gold chains, perhaps, but never sweatpants. Oh, and as if it couldn’t get any worse, there was something about Burress shooting himself in the leg with his own handgun. But that’s what you get for wearing sweatpants, dude.
Then let’s take the case of Brett Favre. He’s one of the all-time great NFL heroes—he’s won a Super Bowl, which is football’s equivalent of the Major League Lacrosse championship. But he doesn’t even know if he likes football anymore. Every summer, Favre vacillates about returning to the game like a guy debating a pelvic wax. Does he really detest football so?
Or how about the Dallas Cowboys? They’re one of the more recognizable teams in the NFL, even if they have to share a city with the Dallas Stars of the National Hockey League. They generate a fair amount of attention, some of it for their players’ private lives. Their quarterback, Tony Romo, dated the ex-wife of Nick Lachey, the co-owner of the Tacoma Rainiers minor league baseball franchise. Poor girl. Talk about a step down in the sports world.
But the news isn’t all bad. Football can be a highly entertaining sport, except when it’s played in Detroit.
There are games on Sunday nights and Monday nights, and if you’re interested in getting divorced, you can watch all the contests on satellite TV. The NFL also has cheerleaders, who have all the same responsibilities as the New York Knicks City Dancers—except coaching a basketball team.
Still, we’ve got a few suggestions to improve the NFL and raise its profile to another level.
1. Lose the Aggressive Attitude. If you’ve spent any time following sports in this country, you know if American audiences can’t stand anything, it’s violence. Bench-clearing brawls, pro wrestling, episodes of The Hills…we can’t stand it. The NFL should cease its celebration of hard-knock contact by encouraging something more humane. Firm handshakes? All-caps text messages? Extreme pouting?
2. Put analysts on the field. Look, the truth is that a lot of the NFL TV personalities are better known than the athletes themselves. So why not incorporate them into the action? Put Chris Berman at midfield on a barstool. Chris Collinsworth, dressed in a suit, running pass routes. John Madden just retired, but see if he’d like to lie down in the end zone, as an obstacle.
3. Rename everyone. Ocho Cinco is on to something. He used to be named Chad Johnson. Boring! You’ve already forgotten Chad Johnson. But Ocho Cinco works beautifully. Let’s rename other stars. Tom Brady? Greg Brady. LaDainian Tomlinson? LaDainian Gaga. Romo? Tony Obama. Just try to forget the Cowboys quarterback has the same last name as the president of the United States.
4. offer weekly Halftime Shows. If there’s one NFL event that everyone cares about, it’s clearly the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Prince—what’s not to like? All-time legends playing selections of the greatest hits. So why not expand it? We’re sure that Bruce would love playing halftime at a Bengals-Rams game in October.
5. upgrade to the Even-More-Super Bowl. This is nonnegotiable. We’ve got to make the Super Bowl better. Yes, we’ve had some classic ones lately—Pittsburgh’s thriller over Arizona, and the New York Giants’ shocker against the Patriots. But why not spice it up with another sporting event? Yes: a soccer game, played simultaneously on an adjacent field. Think of the television ratings and water-cooler arguments.
We know that old viewing habits are hard to break, especially if your family is used to sitting down on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner and watching several hours of badminton. But we’ve got a soft spot for football, and we believe you, too, will enjoy this niche sport. Better yet, if you promise to watch, Favre promises to play next year. With Bruce, onstage, at the halftime show.
Jason Gay played exactly 10 seconds of high school football. His coach slapped him on his helmet, and he decided to run cross-country.
The NFL is a growing league
Of the nearly 40,000 pro football players between 1920 (the NFL’s first year) and 1984, there were never more than eight in any season who weighed over 300 pounds
In the 2006 season there were 570.
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