There is a Super Bowl movie trailer, like it’s the Force Awakens. Annual media day was held in primetime on an indoor suspension bridge, like it’s the Oscars. The Pro Bowl has Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice faux-coaching on the sideline, like it’s MTV Rock n’ Jock. The NFL aspires to be everything it is not.
This is not to say some of these transparent attempts to steer the league into entertainment over sport haven’t paid dividends. Moving the NFL Draft’s most important rounds into Thursday and Friday nights gave it unprecedented exposure to the casual fan. Shoehorning a franchise into Los Angeles immediately increased the Rams value by $500 million. Building the combine into a made-for-TV event has given the NFL Network exclusive programming for diehards. I’ll be one of the infinite sports radio shows broadcasting live from San Francisco this week. They’re clearly doing something right.
For traditionalists who feel like the league has lost its way, we may be out of luck. The NFL has realized for years that showtime meant more interest, eyeballs and revenue. When Ed Sabol created NFL Films it was to view the league through the lens of big-budget Hollywood. The term “Super Bowl” was brainstormed as a catchier way to market its championship game. The NFL adopted television as its medium of choice earlier than any other league.
But there is a cost that comes with every maneuver such as these, and there likely is no putting the toothpaste back into the tube. While this year is generally no different – the Super Bowl has always been a bloated, larger-than-life TV show rooted in excess – maybe there is a tipping point. In a world where we crave simplicity (think about the interface that has made Apple its fortune), the NFL has become too chaotic (think about the catch rule). In a nation that craves “organic” and “all-natural,” the NFL’s fluorescent uniforms and spaceship stadiums look more artificial than ever.
Baseball went old school, packaging its new ballparks from the Eisenhower era. The NBA goes throwback, donning threads from its glorious ’80s any chance it gets. The NHL’s greatest success has been tapping into the nostalgia of outdoor hockey with the Winter Classic and its retro uniforms. The NFL? Screw tradition, we’re playing games on Thursday nights, Sundays before breakfast, across seas, and online. The Buccaneers will have digital clock numerals. The Seahawks will look like a fever dream. The NFL Network game will appear to be two highlighters puking on themselves.
As recently as the late ’80s, the Super Bowl halftime show was Chubby Checker doing sock hop hits and college marching bands. Today the intermission needs Coldplay AND Beyonce, because one of the world’s foremost rock bands just wasn’t big enough. Nothing displays the NFL’s infatuation with being a show more than NBC’s Sunday Night opening credits, Carrie Underwood singing with star players preening on stage as fans shout below like a WrestleMania entrance. The league’s playbook on how to package its stars comes from Vince McMahon. That says it all.
Sometimes it feels like the NFL is the 50-year-old stockbroker in a midlife crisis. The league looks at its old personality as too uncool, not hip enough. The color and uniqueness of the Super Bowl patches and programs have been replaced by uber-serious, corporatized logos over the last decade. It’s like Roger Goodell is telling his 25-year-old secretary, “My old red ’84 Trans-Am was so lame. I’m in a silver Benz now.” But he’s driving it in his yellow-and-blue Tommy Bahama shirt unbuttoned to the navel.
There is no problem in looking ahead and adjusting with the times. We are an event, showbiz-soaked society, and tapping into that makes financial sense. The problem is that the game is enough. It has been forever, yet the NFL keeps crossing the threshold of obnoxiousness and tackiness in its quest for popularity and a few more dollars. They allowed the classic Browns uniforms – a piece of Americana – to be ripped apart by Nike. They sold a Chiefs home game at Arrowhead – one of the great Sunday atmospheres in the nation – to London. Is nothing sacred? The NFL likes to state it’s about “protecting the shield.” But I don’t see much protection of what the league used to be. I see a lot of old churches being razed for more high rise condos.
The NFL is king because it’s the perfect blend of science and violence, the perfect schedule for us to consume our full diet, the perfect calendar real estate when we’re in front of the TV. We have time to change our fantasy team rosters. We have time to go grab another beer. None of that will ever change. But critics this week will lament that Cam Newton is too showy, too loud, too brash. They’ll complain that he dances too much in the end zone, and celebrates after mere first downs. They’ll say it’s all just too much. But Cam is uniquely molded by his environment. The NFL has become, by definition, the land of too much.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.