Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport
By Michael Oriard
Univ. of North Carolina. 326 pp. $29.95
The National Football League begins its new season this week at the absolute top of the American sporting heap. Nothing else comes even close. Just about all sports in this country, "amateur" as well as professional, are big business now, but pro football is the biggest. The numbers, as reported by Michael Oriard, are staggering:
"For 2003 Forbes calculated gross revenue of $5.3 billion for 32 franchises. Over $2.5 billion of that came from television, or $80 million per club. The average head coach made $2.5 million; the average player made $1.2 million, with top stars making several times that much. A salary cap set total player salaries at $75 million per club. Ticket prices averaging $52.95 seemed almost an afterthought, pocket change from the premiums for club seats and luxury boxes leasing for tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nearly 140 million Americans watched some part of the Super Bowl that year, for which a thirty-second ad cost $2.1 million. The average franchise was worth $733 million, with the Washington Redskins topping $1 billion."
Pro football as Americans know it is still primarily an American game -- to the rest of the world, "football" is what we call soccer -- but the NFL's reach is global. Last winter, I watched most of the playoff games and the Super Bowl in my apartment in Lima, Peru, brought to me courtesy of ESPN and/or Fox Sports. A sports bar less than half a mile from the apartment carries NFL games every weekend and advertises them prominently on a blackboard outside. Doubtless its clientele consists primarily of American tourists or business people, but nonetheless this bar manages to conduct a thriving business based substantially on making NFL games available in a country where most sports fans find American football totally alien.
All of which obviously is very good for the people who own the teams as well as their employees and the players, but the NFL's success is not without its limitations. As Oriard points out in this thoughtful, informative overview, the league's obsessive focus on "image" is complicated by players' use of recreational and performance-enhancing drugs, by various embarrassing crimes committed by a handful of them and by racial tensions and discrimination that persist despite the NFL's efforts to ameliorate them. More fundamentally, Oriard wonders whether the NFL may have gained the whole world but lost, or at least compromised, its soul.
It's a question that experience entitles him to ask. Before obtaining the advanced degrees necessary for employment in academia -- he is professor of literature and related subjects at Oregon State University -- Oriard played for four seasons (1970-73) for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was a lineman, and a second-team one at that, but he knows firsthand the joy as well as the pain that football can give to those who play it, and he cherishes that joy as experienced by players and fans alike. He is concerned about "oversaturation" of NFL games and products, but he thinks "the greater danger lies in devaluing the actual football games if they become simply part of a larger spectacle or a multipronged marketing campaign." He worries about a "new NFL" dominated by "labor peace, television contracts, and stadium revenue." He writes:
"Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, spoke for the entire new NFL when he told a reporter, 'You must go out and find customers. You must provide good entertainment value irrespective of the product on the field.' Irrespective of the product on the field. Before 'Monday Night Football' in 1970, no such 'irrespective' was conceivable. Now, it informed the fundamental thinking of NFL owners and league executives."
The debut of Monday Night Football coincided with the completion of the merger between the NFL and the American Football League, the decade-old competitor (invariably described in sports journalese as "upstart") that had forced a compromise after driving player salaries steadily upward, most famously with the $427,000 contract awarded to Joe Namath by the New York Jets in 1965. Namath brought to pro football a "live-and-let-live philosophy in defiance of tradition and the Establishment," and when his Jets beat the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl -- the greatest upset in the pro game's history -- the staid old NFL was forced to change in order to accommodate the altered realities of post-1960s America. It became somewhat hipper and, like the hippies who metamorphosed into yuppies, it went commercial.
Oriard traces this evolution in convincing detail. He is scarcely the first former player to write about the game -- Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay (1968), published while its author was still a member of the Green Bay Packers, remains to this day the best book about football qua football -- but the combination of his playing experience and his deep knowledge of the league's inner business workings makes for a unique and useful point of view. Much of the material in the first two-thirds of the book will be familiar to readers of Michael MacCambridge's America's Game (2004), the best history of pro football to date, but his discussion of what can fairly be called the game's larger meaning is especially interesting and insightful.
Oriard wastes no time in declaring himself: "I always understood that players drew the fans who made the owners rich; that the players, not the owners, risked crippling injury on every play only to become crippled in middle age anyway, even if they managed to avoid major injuries. Readers may occasionally find a former player's bias in the chapters that follow." So it will come as no surprise that his sentiments lie with the players in the three strikes that afflicted the league in 1974, 1982 and 1987, but he is also quick to point out weaknesses in the players' strategy, and he makes plain that they were far from unanimous in support of their union. As he says, their real victories were won in the courts, which finally assured them rights of free agency -- the same rights that all people are supposed to enjoy in the American workplace -- and, ironically, helped lead not merely to labor peace but also to a more profitable NFL, for owners every bit as much as for players.
Considering that Oriard was in college in the late 1960s and that his own time in the NFL was in the early 1970s, it's understandable that he brings a '60s sensibility to this book. He thinks (and he's right) that despite the genuine progress the league has made on race, it is still woefully short of genuine equality in the front offices as well as on the field. He is deeply disturbed (as he should be) by the league's callous attitude toward serious injuries suffered by active players and by its indifference to Alzheimer's and other maladies that former players undergo years after leaving the game -- maladies that doctors not affiliated with the league almost unanimously attribute to concussions and other football-related injuries.
Yet Oriard is also a football guy to the core, and he does not shirk from acknowledging that violence and risk of injury are part of the game's appeal to fans and players alike. "Football's power from its beginnings derived from the players appearing larger than life and meeting physical demands that seemed heroic in contrast to ordinary human experiences," he writes, and he insists that "those who respond to its fundamental nature will remain fans no matter what the packaging, while those who respond to the packaging may be briefly attracted but will not become real fans." Later he writes:
"Football makes little sense according to the rules we learn to live by in our modern world. That is why it appeals so powerfully, not just to working stiffs wearing dog masks and barking in the end zone seats in Cleveland, but also to TV executives and CEOs in luxury suites. . . . Football ultimately is what it is and what its fans make of it, no matter what efforts go into the packaging. It is deeply ironic that the NFL has become a financial colossus but can no longer afford to trust football's power. The league needs those 80 or 90 million casual fans, on top of its passionate 40 million, to feed the money machine it has created. Yet without that inherent power all the marketing in the world would be pointless."
Thus in the end Oriard, for all his toughness, reveals himself to be something of a romantic: "We no longer live in a Heroic Age, our values have changed, yet football itself is an expression of a longing to recover the heroic." Perhaps so, though one should no more confuse football "heroism" with the real thing than one should venerate John Wayne for his celluloid "heroism." But Oriard is right to insist that if pro football permits the essential nature of the game to be lost in all that marketing, if it becomes all sizzle and no steak, something very American and very valuable also will be lost. ?
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.