How the NFL fuses sport and spectacle

What the National Football League has understood better than any other professional sports league is that Americans love a spectacle.

In its eight decades, the NFL has given the sporting world the halftime show, the instant replay, the sideline reporter, and of course, the Super Bowl. From the moment 40 million viewers watched Alan Ameche plop into the end zone to win the 1958 title game, pro football has been America's most telegenic sport.

It is a flurry of helmet-headed barbarism packaged into neat 10-second segments. It is bombs and blitzes amid cheerleaders and nacho cheese - a Technicolor feast of sound and motion.

Thursday, with the Jets and Redskins, will be no different. Yes, that is Britney Spears and Aerosmith slated to appear at the pregame show. No, the NFL has not moved the Super Bowl to September. Rather, it is merely doing what it has always done best: entertaining. And this season opener in Washington - scheduled for maximum TV exposure - highlights how pro football has achieved a deeper place in American culture, once reserved only for baseball.

"The league has always seen the value of entertainment," says Joe Horrigan of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "It's not entertainment for the sake of entertainment, it's entertainment for the sake of a new audience."

In recent years, football has proved more adept at drawing new fans than perhaps any other sport. A 2002 Harris Poll showed that 27 percent of Americans listed football as their favorite sport, nearly twice as many as listed baseball, which came in at No. 2. Moreover, football was one of only three sports where more than half of women considered themselves fans.

Naturally, as in any sport, there are the purists - those who cup the names Tom Landry and Lambeau Field as though they were Ming vases, and who view anyone unable to name the Steel Curtain defense as an intruder. But in truth, football has never aspired to the sort of intellectualism that parses box scores for batting average against left-handed pitchers in day games. If baseball is the chess of athletic pursuits, football is a war game in miniature, mixing horn-rimmed strategy with battle-ax brutality.

Linemen are in the trenches. Teams protect their turf. Quarterbacks marshal their troops.

Throughout the golden age of baseball in the 1950s and '60s, the diamond was the quintessential sporting stage - a sort of communal picnic that invited spectators to linger in its rolling, organic rhythms. Since the dawn of the television era, though, an afternoon at the ballpark has turned into a date with the remote control. And thinking doesn't necessarily make for good instant replays.

"[Football] is exciting every single play," says Mr. Horrigan. "All 22 guys are on the field at the same time. It's active. It's colorful. It's a sense of controlled violence."

Indeed, modern football essentially began when the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in sudden-death overtime on national television in 1958. Its success spurred the rival American Football League, which was created more for television revenues than gate receipts. "[Pro football] was pretty rinky-dink until the late 1950s," says Richard Davies, a history professor at the University of Nevada in Reno, who studies sports and television. "Television created a new market."

Pete Rozelle understood that. The former NFL commissioner got his start, not as a player, but as a public-relations director. Football may well have been an august game wrought on icy turf and etched in leathery faces, but he imagined it could also be a Sunday carnival of bratwursts and marching bands.

This was the most populist of sports - raw, emotional, visceral - and Mr. Rozelle's populist vision still dominates the sport. "The guys that really shape football are the league officials and the owners," says Bob Carroll, a football historian who writes for Pro Football Weekly. "And they have been really good."

The most generous revenue-sharing deal, for example, ensures that even the smallest teams can win a championship. But what has set football apart perhaps more than anything else is its sense of occasion - embodied in the Super Bowl. Nine of the 15 highest-rated shows in TV history are NFL championship games, and historians suggest that the advent of the Super Bowl in the late 1960s was a key to football overtaking baseball as America's most popular sport. "It gave birth to the new major championship event," says Horrigan. "It was a marriage of entertainment and sport."

Over the years, that marriage has been supported by football's status as a once-a-week event - "every game is a big deal," says Mr. Carroll - and amplified by ventures such as Monday Night Football. The show, which pioneered the use of sideline microphones and instant replay, remains the second longest-running prime-time program behind "60 Minutes."

Thursday's kickoff party comes from a similar playbook. "I don't think the NFL is doing anything different," says Carroll. "It's just doing it better."

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