Central to the NFL’s bid to create a ‘hit’ is its ability to articulate drama through its plethora of television networks, such as ESPN and CBS. ESPN in particular, have become very fine exponents in the art of dramatization, more specifically it’s producers of ‘Monday Night Football’, Jay Rothman and Chip Dean. Two men, who will weave whatever web of seduction they can to entrap their prime target – the football fan.
A clear example being their coverage of not a regular season game, but a fairly meaningless match up yes, not so in the context of this discussion.
On the 20th of August, the Philadelphia Eagles travelled to Foxborough, Massachusetts to take on the New England Patriots. As is so often the norm with television drama, you need a lead, and this case, that would be Tom Brady, three time Superbowl winner, husband to Supermodel Giselle Bundchen, and what many claim to be the quintessential all American posterboy.
Though there’s one small problem – Brady is nowhere to be seen, cue mass pandemonium as Rothman and Dean work frantically to locate the man integral to the nights festivities. A task that becomes all the more precarious when it’s discovered that the man otherwise known as ‘The hoodie’, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, has given his star player the night off in a bid to assess his understudies Bryan Hoyer and Ryan Mallett.
With creative juices throwing through their collective veins, our dynamic duo, Rothman and Dean make it their mission to capture Brady on camera, however which they can, regardless of the fact that he won’t be on their stage, because if they (Rothman and Dean) can document the reaction of the lead to a moment of genius on the part of his understudy, they may indeed have their Academy Award for ‘I wish that was me throwing that pass’ moment, whilst at the same time allowing Brady’s vast legion of female admirers the chance to gaze upon their choice for ‘best looking male lead’.
Even, the man who would ordinarily assume the role of Brady’s opponent, or in the interests of Rothman and Dean, Brady’s ‘nemesis’, Michael Vick becomes embroiled in the story as commentators Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico over enthusiastically inquire “What’s Brady think about that?”, as Philly’s dynamic triggerman engineers a highly improbable conversion under what would normally be inescapable pressure.
Despite the non - appearance of the man (Brady) so central to their show, Rothman and Dean are handed a reprieve, as Michael Vicks role in Rothman and Deans circus act, is about to become one of a more prominent nature.
The Eagles are on the verge of executing their second drive of the game – First and 10 at their own 26 – yard line. To the naked eye, all appears fairly standard, as Vick takes the snap, fakes a hand off, as two Patriots defenders zero in, and proceeds to hurriedly throw what ultimately turns out to be a directionally challenged pass that sails harmlessly over the head of its intended target – DeSean Jackson.
However, as Toy Story’s ‘Woody’ said, rather insidiously, whilst his head rotates on its own axis “We toys can see EVERYTHING’ – and so it seems, do our resident ring masters Rothman and Dean, as they exclaim with Gusto “Holy S**t”. He’s down”. At which point Dean cuts away to two jubilant Patriots defenders cowering over a prostrate Michael Vick like Lions over a stricken Zebra.
They proceed to ratchet up the drama dial another notch by first, showing Michael Vick writhing in agony and clutching his ribs, secondly by fashioning a slow motion replay from an alternate angle, revisiting the brutal moment in all its glory, and lastly, the predilection for drama doesn’t end there as they reveal the concerned look of medics as they rush to Vick’s aid - you can almost hear Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ striking up in the background.
Just for good measure, our resident Spielberg’s choose this precise moment to cut to commercial, thus creating the perfect cliff-hanger, as Viewers around the country, consumed by anticipation, will gather intently round their television sets like the Mission Control staff, as they await contact from Tom Hank’s Apollo 13 crew during the re – entry phase.
The Eagles could have, in that situation, opted to go with the run for example through LeSean McCoy, but due to the cinematically perfect nature of the moment, Rothman and Dean have scripted the kind of Oscar worthy scene that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Orson Welles, or Spielberg epic.
It would seem that much like the typical Hollywood blockbuster, Vick’s fate was well and truly scripted, certainly if Jon Gruden’s astonishing foresight is anything to go by “It’s very important that take care of himself” (And he’s got a point, as to date he’s turned the ball over 13 times, lost 6 fumbles, and been hit approximately 59 times over 6 games). He continued: “Andy Reid told us, Vick is still gonna scramble for first downs, he’s still gonna scramble for touchdowns, but you’re also gonna see him scramble to GET DOWN and avoid a lot of the punishment he’s taken over the last year”.
Interestingly enough, just before Vick unwittingly became provide his ‘directors’ with their Oscar worthy moment, the crew prepared their own little mini-series detailing the history of Vick’s injuries – just in case a sequel is needed..
“The league will do whatever it takes to make the game more exciting” proclaimed former Giants Quarterback, and now CBS analyst - Wise words, words that would appear remarkably prophetic in week 3.
When Packers safety M.D Jennings picked of Russell Wilson’s ‘Hail Mary’ pass with time expiring at CenturyLink Field, he seemed to have secured a game winning interception…expect it wasn’t, as replacement referee’s ruled it a touchdown in favour of the Seahawks and the intended recipient of the pass, Golden Tate (despite replays clearly showing that Jennings having control of the football, long before Tate and himself fell to ground in an entangled mess).
A not so golden moment as far as the ever dissipating reputation of replacement officials go, but very golden as far as the NFL’s television networks were concerned, as their latest actors had delivered their next epic.
This most certainly rang true, as ESPN’s 90 minute post – game segment ‘Sports Centre’ drew in 4.5% of the nation’s viewers, subsequently making it the most watched edition of the series to date, and led USA Today’s Michael Hiestand to remark “If the NFL nears a deal with the regular refs, it should wait until it’s own NFL Network’s Cleveland – Baltimore game Thursday night. Because when it comes to TV ratings, the replacement refs are bringing out plenty of rubberneckers”
Even more astonishing is the fact that this one particular incident proved more alluring than every single College football game that took place that weekend of Monday 24th of September. Incredibly it’s believed that viewing figures may have increased still further had ESPN broken off from its post – match lambasting, for shots of disgraced officials departing CenturyLink Field with their tails between their legs – possibly sped up to the Benny Hill theme.
However, at this particular juncture, many of a conspirational mind-set may point to the fact that though the networks have deals of substantial dollar value with the NFL, the NFL would have no compunction in tearing it all up and starring again.
Any football analyst worth his salt, irrespective of network, who isn’t the voice of condemnation, would be very much flying solo. The Packers – Seahawks showdown drew in 10.3% of American households. Though that may undermine the argument citing the need to entice through dramatization on the part of the NFL and it’s broadcasting partners, as the aforementioned game represented a 2% drop on the Washington Redskins – Dallas Cowboys clash of last season, that was ‘Monday Night Football’s’ highest rated of last season. Thus illustrating how big the drama at CenturyLink, but more importantly in the context of this discussion, how dramatic content is to the NFL’s pursuit of viewers.
ESPN Vice – President Norby Williamson said, whilst being quoted in USA Today: “If one thing has been proven in this (Seahawks – Packers game), it’s that there’s an insatiable demand for the NFL”.
With a season that’s on course to become the highest scoring in living memory (even surpassing the 2011 – 12 season where three Quarterbacks, including Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady, threw for over 5, 000 – yards and 40 touchdowns), with 791 points, at an average of 49.5 being scored in week 1 alone, and the multitude of media avenues now open both Stateside, courtesy of NBC, CBS, ESPN, NFL Network and it’s supplementary package ‘NFL Game Pass, and even in the UK, where this season we’ve witnessed a 30% increase on 2011’s viewing figures (a trend that if continuous, will result in a projected figure of 95, 500), seducing the fan through sporting theatre has never been easier. Even if, according to some, such as ‘Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi “The NFL is rapidly evolving into a glorified arena league with absurd passing and scoring”.
Be that though it may, William Randolph Hearst once said: “You get me the pictures, I’ll get you the war” – and it seems the NFL, with its myriad of associate networks have taken head, and are delivering on this ‘insatiable appetite for NFL’. As they say – ‘Business is business’.
image: © Jimmy theSuperStar