When the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens line up this evening — Thursday, Sept. 5 — at Sports Authority Field at Mile High (Stadium) to kick off the 2013 season, America will officially be back to football.
An estimated 25 million people will tune into the broadcast of the game on NBC Sports and the opening festivities that surround it, making it one of the nation’s largest communal gatherings of the season.
The following night, from Waxahachi to Walla Walla, high school stadiums will fill for “Friday Night Lights” and millions will cheer for the teams representing their towns and communities. Then, on Saturday, at our institutions of higher learning, the highest accolades will be reserved for gridiron warriors who lead their colleges to victory.
Yes, in America, football matters. It matters to millions who obsessively care about the outcomes and scores and storylines of each game. But it also matters to many more millions who tune in not because they give a hoot about who is playing, but simply because they welcome the games as a diversion from the realities of day-to-day life. Regardless, for both the rabid fan and the casual game viewer, today marks a change of season.
My Football Life
I have been involved with football for as long as I can remember. In 1966, I pulled on my first jersey with a white #63 on it and lined up at right guard for the Mighty-Mite Greens of the Venice, Calif., Pop Warner League. For the next eight autumns, football was more important than life itself. I rose through the ranks, moving from the O-line to wide receiver as my classmates grew, and then played at Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades. I was good enough to get invited to play at the University of Colorado, but my dream of becoming the next Lynn Swann died in the fall of ’74 when it became clear that my talents would not be required by Bill Mallory and the Buffaloes. Too short, too slow and at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Determined to stay in the game, I found a niche as a spotter on ABC’s college football telecasts and later on Monday Night Football. I hitched my star to Al Michaels, who has been the preeminent voice of primetime NFL football for the last quarter-century, and also did a long stint with the great Keith Jackson covering the top college games of the week.
Each week I travel from Aspen to the site of the NBC Sunday Night Football game. From my perch on 50-yard line in the press box high above the field, I watch each and every play with focused intensity, keeping track of what happens on the turf and relaying that info to Al and analyst Cris Collinsworth. For three hours a week, I am a part of the game.
Having not missed a broadcast in the last 25 years or so (my current primetime streak — first Monday Night Football, and for the last few years on NBC’s Sunday Night Football — stands somewhere north of 520 games going into this week’s broadcast), I have seen enough football to have a few opinions.
While there are a thousand reasons why football is so popular in America, here are a few that I think resonate most with fans.
1. The Color and the Pageantry
It is a cliché, but from the breaking of the banner when Basalt High School takes the field, to the Ohio State Band dotting the “i” in Ohio, to the furious waiving of the yellow towels by Steelers fans at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the spectacle of football is intoxicating.
A football “event” is as much about the pageant as it is the game. Every element that surrounds a big-time game is choreographed and plotted to provide a make-the-hair-on-your-arms stand up moment. Consider the Super Bowl. While the obsessed talk “Tampa Two defenses” and “Pistol offenses,” the vast majority of Americans care more about who the halftime performers are, or whether Apple will be introducing a new iProduct.
Every moment is calculated to create an emotion. One that will get fans ready for the game or make them proud to root for team and country. Or both.
The singing of the anthem, the unfurling of the flag, the entrance of the players through the fire-breathing nostrils of an inflatable horse — it is an odd combination, but one that creates a frenzy in stadiums across the nation.
2. The Sense of Community
People bond with their teams. At high schools, Friday nights bring a level of community gathering that transcends the games. Families get together under the Friday Night Lights to talk, gossip, make plans and watch the town’s youngsters grow up.
When we matriculate to college, we immediately identify ourselves based on the teams that represent us. Go to Wisconsin? You’re a Badger for life. Georgia your school? You’re forever a Dog. We become “members” of these teams and wear their colors with pride. It provides us with a group identity that helps explain who we are.
The ultimate extension comes when we choose our favorite NFL team. Some love the Raiders, as they see themselves representative of an outside-the-law culture. Others opt for the Giants and their buttoned down style and tradition. Some just fall in line and root, root, root for the hometown team.
Fans pick and cheer for teams as a way of making a statement about the kind of people they are and the way they want to be perceived.
3. The Television Experience
It is no accident that the popularity of pro football evolved in lock-step with the growth of television. Football and television were made for each other. A 60-minute game, turned into a three-and-a-half hour show with natural breaks for selling anything and everything is an idea that works. It works for the networks, the leagues and the fans. Football ratings drive network profits. And television exposure drives the popularity of the game.
For the fans, the opportunity to gather in a bar or at a friend’s house to watch a game is a ritual that has become tradition. The “box” brings us together.
4. The Violence
Make no mistake: Our love of football is intrinsically tied to the violent nature of what takes place on the field.
The game’s most popular clips are replays of the vicious shots and hardest hits of any given weekend. The water cooler talk or social media chatter revolves around not just who won or lost, but also the hit that looked to hurt the most. This fixation is part of our make up, even though we may be horrified when can’t take our eyes off of the weekly calamity. Injury reports are discussed daily and the focus is not on pain, but rather, how quickly the injured can heal enough for the player to get back on the field.
Ironically, this may be the biggest challenge the game faces going forward. Just this past week, the NFL and its former players agreed to a $765 million settlement of a lawsuit that sought to provide financial considerations for injuries suffered on the field. And concerns about concussions are changing the rules of the game to protect players from further injury.
But there is a fine line between protecting athletes and taking the whiff of danger out of the game. We love the contact.
5. The Football Food
Pizza. Nachos. Wings. Burgers. Beers. All are synonymous with football and it is not a stretch to suggest that these foods, these comfort foods, became, for better or worse, staples of the American diet because of their association with Sunday afternoons.
Each weekend millions consume billions of empty calories fueling their game day activities. There are many fans who could care less about what happens on the field, just so long as their plates and glasses are full.
6. The Weekly Wager
Las Vegas does not have a professional football franchise and yet it may be the most important city in game. Every week the odds makers set the lines on the upcoming games. Who will win and by how much? What is the over/under? How many first downs will North Dakota St. get in the third quarter?
Betting has been around since the beginning of human history, but it found its perfect marketplace in football. The last Super Bowl saw $98.9 million in bets recorded in Las Vegas alone. This year’s handle should be the first to exceed $100 million. CNBC estimated that between $60 and $70 billion is bet each year on just college football.
With the advent of proposition bets, the fantasy football leagues, and the proliferation of televised games, all the way down to high school football, gambling is as much a part of the action as a sideline catch.
7. The Lessons Learned
For many men in America, the lessons they learned while playing High School football resonate through their entire lives. The discipline required to prepare, the need to work within a team environment, the development of a skill, the need to rise to an occasion and not back down from a moment. And then there are the lessons learned from defeat.
Former players, even those who may have been back-ups, still imagine themselves and how they would perform in a game time situation when they watch a game. They project how they would handle the moment when they see the most skilled players in the world play.
Football is a proving ground for many young men. And even though the game passes them by, as they age they still see themselves as players. Each Sunday they get to watch their “avatars” do battle.
8. The Rules of the Game
On the one hand, football is a simple game. Sixty minutes long, you block, you tackle, and you “matriculate the ball down the field.” But on the other, the game is filled with nuance and strategy.
Fans love to watch one team run the ball while the other throws. They love to argue about the 3-4 defense versus the 4-3. Strategy is something every fan seems to know more about than the head coaches. And don’t get started talking about the officials. Even with instant replay, the subtlety of pass interference and the interpretation, or lack thereof, can get a bar full of fans in a total meltdown
We are in an exciting era in the NFL with the advent of new offensive strategies that are helmed by young, fast, smart quarterbacks. And yet these schemes are as old as the game itself. They are just readjustments and reinterpretations of previous formations and plays that have been a part of the game since it began.
But it is the evolution of the strategy and the rules that gives fans something to talk and/or argue about.
9. The Unknown
“That’s why they play the games” is another cliché that every fan knows. It is a cliché because it is true. The great thing about football is that anything can happen.
We can talk all week about an upcoming game and who has the edge and what to look for etc., etc. But until the ball is placed on the tee, we really have no clue about what will happen. Maybe your team dominates. Perhaps you overcome the odds and win when no one expected it.
A sixty-minute game between your team and a hated rival can provide the perfect microcosm of your daily life.
10. The Players
All of the above plays into our love of football. But when it comes right down to it, it is the skill of the men who play the game that most endears the sport to millions.
This week, fans will watch Peyton Manning lead his team to the line, point at a linebacker, adjust a slot receiver, bark instructions for a blocking scheme to his offensive line and complete a pass for 12 yards that will be thrown before his target makes his cut. Then he will do it again.
Adrian Peterson will cut through a hole; break a tackle and dash down a sideline with power and grace that mere mortals can only dream about. Calvin Johnson will leap high above the outstretched arms of a defensive back and bring in a pass with the tips of his fingers that has been hurled forty yards in the air to a spot that is the only place where it could be completed. DeMarcus Ware will shed the double team of two players who weigh in excess of a combined quarter-ton and track down a running back who is quicker than a cougar.
It is the opportunity to watch these players do amazing things that is really the lure of the game that we love so much.
Have a great season.
Editor’s Note: “Malibu” Kelly Hayes is a spotter for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. He is also a writer for the Aspen Times Weekly, penning our WineInk column each week.