The 2011 NFL season may be over, but it’s hard to tell with all the football coverage out there. From Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, to Eli’s “elite” status, and free agency, if it weren’t for Linsanity, ESPN could be mistaken for the NFL Network. But why this glut of coverage more than a week after the Super Bowl’s final whistle? It’s easy to say that the NFL and media nurture hype for profit and ratings, but the answer also is in football’s DNA.
Professional football in America is indeed “a rare sport.” The autumnal pastime of our grandparents has evolved, over the last 50 years, into a perpetual entertainment Leviathan. Guts and grit spill across the gridiron from September through January; human drama and analysis drive the action from February through August. “Offseason,” Doug Farrar joked in 2008 when we launched the League. “What’s that?”
For those who cover football, and those who follow it, winter, spring and summer can be as action-packed as autumn — they need to be. The NFL has one of the shortest seasons in sports, if you measure its length by games and weeks. But unlike other sports, average NFL fans don’t tune out after the final game. Traffic spikes on some football Web sites during the offseason; ESPN proudly promotes its coverage of an endless season. The Scouting Combine, Pro Days and the Draft fill the doldrums of winter and spring. Mini-camps, training camps, “Hard Knocks” (yes, it’s coming back), fantasy drafts, and preseason carry fans through the dog days of summer. Toss in the inevitable drama that hounds young, rich athletes, and following the NFL is truly a 365-day proposition.
Though maligned by purists, what happens off the field is just as important to the NFL’s popularity as what happens on it. Scarcity of games drives fan demand for drama, analysis and hype. That ratio of downtime to playtime is part of the DNA of football. A single game is a microcosm of the year. In every three-hour broadcast there are only 60 minutes of actual game time — many of which are spent huddling. The action may seem non-stop but it is episodic; brief forays followed by lengthy analysis.
Take Eli Manning’s sideline strike to Mario Manningham with 3:46 left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI. It took six seconds to complete — and it was a relatively long play. How many hours have those six seconds been stretched into? In the last week alone they have been watched, relived, dissected, analyzed, praised and memorialized; and it’s not just the Super Bowl. Even the most mundane, regular season snaps are typically replayed at least once in slow-motion. If a play is exciting or controversial it might be replayed 10 times or more during the game. That’s the fun of watching football; it’s not only the action, but analyzing and debating the action. “Did he get both feet in? Should they go for it on fourth? What a terrible spot! How many times will we see Gisele?”
That DNA makes the dearth of football acceptable during the 365-day season, further spurring demand. Of 52 weeks only 17 have regular season games, one of which is a bye. That means each year, 20 teams (62.5% of the league) give their fans only 16 hours of actual game time, excluding overtime. If your team earns a wild card, and makes it to the Super Bowl, like the Giants did, then you get 20 hours of football per year. I know Giants fans who spend more than 20 hours a week talking about their team. And that is how the football void is filled: with talking.
As we enter the 2012 offseason, football fans should have no problem getting their NFL fix. The smack of helmets has already been replaced by the knock of talking heads arguing over Peyton’s future place. The cold “November mud” will be washed away as teams spring clean for the draft. At least one player will be arrested over the summer; at least one player will appear on Dancing with the Stars. Some controversy will arise, most likely head trauma related, and debates will ensue — Congress might even get involved. Some rookie will over-Tweet, some veteran will show up at training camp overweight. Preseason games will be over-hyped. Fantasy football will grow larger. And then the autumn wind will come blustering in, carrying the sounds of opening day.