Of course by “football” I mean American football and by “sport” I mostly mean “American Sport”. I certainly do not mean “rest of the world” football, which Americans call soccer. If your favorite sport is soccer then we can just agree now that you will hate me and I will feel sorry for you. With the Super Bowl once again upon us I have been ruminating about why football in general, and the NFL in particular, is clearly the best sport in the country. I thought I stole this idea from Chuck Klosterman, who wrote an excellent essay about football in his recent book Eating the Dinosaur. It turns out that his essay did not say what I thought it did, but it did tickle me to ruminate about this subject for a while. So why, exactly, is football better?
There are many reasons, and only some of them have to do with the game itself.
Game Day is Once a Week
This, I think, is the most important reason the NFL dominates. The almost slavishly constrained structure of the NFL season is perfect for the modern life style. Who really has time to watch 82 or 160 or however many games are in the hockey season games per year? Nobody, that’s who. Well, the nuttiest of the fans will make the time, but the football season allows you to maintain a genuine interest while not requiring that you allocate a fifth of your waking hours to following your favorite team. Instead, you have to remember one simple rule: be at home at 1pm or 4pm on Sunday (with the occasional exceptions for Monday and Thursday) and you are all set.
In addition, the really nutty fans can buy a special TV package that lets them watch every game every week. In what other league would you even watch every game that happens on a given day? In the NFL it’s not really that hard, if you have most of your weekend free and a few Tivos.
Made for Tivo
Speaking of Tivo, football is made for Tivo. Have you ever noticed how the play clock is 40 seconds? Have you ever noticed that your Tivo can skip ahead by exactly 30 seconds? This means that if you have the next hour of the game buffered in your Tivo you can skip from play to play to play with a great deal of precision and not have to listen to the idiot announcers fill time. You can’t do this with any other sport.
The Analysis Cycle
An underrated aspect of the “one game per week” nature of the football season is the fact that it has allowed the NFL to construct the perfect structure for its news cycle. The only news in the NFL that the NFL doesn’t tightly control is what happens on Sundays when they play the games. Everything else is an endless stream of canned analysis, preview and opinion pieces about either the games that have just happened or the games that are about to happen. For even the casual fan, this stream of content is hard to resist and very addictive. The only evidence you need to convince yourself of this is to watch the NFL Network for an hour. If you have any interest in football at all, you’ll be completely mesmerized. The entire time you can’t turn away the rational part of your brain (which is weaker than the rest) will be telling you that what you are consuming is mindless drivel almost completely devoid of fact or meaning. Unfortunately, the rest of your brain will refuse to turn it off. It’s the most brilliant consumer television move since The Real World.
Given the regimented structure of the football season, it’s not surprising that the game itself is also highly ordered. The contest lurches forward in intervals of forty seconds. The offense and defense line up, a lot of complicated maneuvering happens, then there is an explosion of chaos and violence. After that, the whole thing resets and repeats itself.
This “turn-based” structure, if you will, leads to a the popularity of a particular point of view about how the good teams win. When good teams win, a huge amount of credit tends to be given to the Head Coach. The coach will be put up as a brilliant tactician, a keen evaluator of talent, and a savvy manager of the players. People will say he (or his quarterback) knows how to “manage the game”, as if the important part of the game was all in the setup. This leads to a view of the players as something akin to automatons, required by their programmed nature to “do their job” and execute the grand “schemes” and “adjustments” of the huge intellects in charge of the team.
As Patriots fan, this view of the of the football team is especially poignant since over the last ten years the franchise has been put up as the model for this sort of team. A lot of “interchangeable parts” with a few superstars all controlled directly from the giant brain that is Belichick. All of this would be great except that it really hasn’t worked that way since 2005. The course of the team since then is a stark illustration that you can’t control the game and the dividing line between shutting up the Dolphins forever and becoming second banana to Peyton Manning can be as stupid as some guy catching the ball against his helmet.
However, the NFL doesn’t care about this. The NFL likes to perpetuate the myth of the coach because doing so will make you, the fan, think that if only the coaching staff could hear what you are shouting from your couch, the game would be going a lot better. This is a great fantasy, and is yet another way the NFL hooks its fans. But don’t be fooled. The game is played by players, not little robots. And how those guys feel and what they make themselves do on any given day is ultimately more important than all the scheming and adjusting the giant brains can do. Remember: helmet catch.
I was going to write a bit here about how Fantasy Football is clearly the only fantasy sport worth subjecting yourself to. But then I remembered that I hate fantasy football, so I think I’ll give it up. That said, the weekly structure of the league is what makes this true. Gives you time to indulge in your coaching fantasies (see above) and adjust your team a lot.
I bet gambling on football is more fun for the same reason. But I wouldn’t know anything about that.
Football also makes for the best video games. The reason is simple and familiar: you can actually play an entire season in a reasonable amount of time. You can even play two seasons before your 40 hours with the game are up. But there is no one on earth who has time to actually play 162 video baseball games in a season mode. The brilliance of the 17 game season comes through again.
The Game of the Year
And so we come full circle back to the Super Bowl, clearly the biggest single day in American sports. The Super Bowl is more interesting than the other championship contests because all of the other professional sports leagues use a series to decide rounds in the playoffs. The NFL uses single elimination, which is obviously superior.
For example, last year the Celtics were in the NBA playoffs. And if you wanted to follow them you had to realize that the entire first round of the NBA playoffs took more than a month to play out. There were a total of 16 teams in two conferences playing eight series all of which could go seven games. This is potentially a total of 56 basketball games just to get into the second round.
This happens in the NFL in two days. Then there is a whole week to crank up the analysis and hype machine. This is even more effective in the playoffs because the fans are even more invested. If you work hard at it, you can even convince yourself that (say) a weak Patriots team with no defense to speak of is actually a favorite to beat whoever it was that completely destroyed them once the game was played. Oh, sorry.
Again, the NFL takes advantage of the fact that they play relatively few actual games to crank up the hype machine between rounds. This culminates in a two week feeding frenzy around the two teams that play in the Super Bowl every year. By the time the game is actually played, it is completely impossible for anyone to not have found out what is going on. There is even an out of band hype machine around the advertising for this single football game. All bases: covered.
On the other hand, the NFL has made an uncharacteristic mistake in navigating its juggernaut through the consciousness of the sports consumer. This year, they decided to put the Pro Bowl in the off week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. This is a remarkably stupid move. Not only does no one give a shit about the Pro Bowl, the game also interrupts the hype pipeline for the more important game. Instead of gripping 24×7 analysis of which quarterback’s grandmother might have the psychological edge on gameday, the talking heads have to spend time talking about the Pro Bowl.
I’m not sure who thought of this move, but it strikes me as strange and unwise. Maybe its a harbinger of more failures to come. Like how the Patriots stopped being able to play pass defense in crunch time, thus ensuring that their next Super Bowl is probably a long ways off. I saw something about this on the NFL Network. I thought that analysis was very insightful.
Note: This article was cross posted at Draft Day Suit with permission from the nice people there.