Welcome to the Third String Quarterback Column….
The World Cup Effect
The Daily Telegraph ran a poll that found more young people in the U.K. preferred American football to regular football (or ‘Association football’ or ‘soccer’ is it was often referred up until the mid seventies). That wasn’t a great shock to anyone living through the rising popularity of America’s game in Britain. The NFL and its many personalities were by now semi-mainstream culture, appearing in high profile sports advertisements and were even playing games at Wembley. It was June 1990.
One month later the England football team would reach the semi-finals of the World Cup as the emotion and drama of tears and penalties gripped a nation. By the end of the decade there would be no NFL left on terrestrial television as even the Super Bowl vanished from the main five channels.
This summer England reached the semi-finals of the World Cup again. Could the popularity of the NFL in the U.K. in 2018 suffer the same fate as it did nearly 30 years ago?
Sure, there are many parallels to draw. But it’s unlikely.
Firstly, it’s over-simplifying it to say that that one moment had a cataclysmic impact. In hindsight it was a range of events that led to the boom and then bust interest in the NFL. American football had found a wave of popularity almost overnight in the 1980’s. The birth of the Premier League in the early 1990’s, Sky TV, new and safer stadiums, foreign players and more exciting, expansive football all contributed to drawing back fans to the national game in the Cool Britannia era of the nineties (in contrast to the Americana of the eighties). Other sports also joined in the party with rugby league, cricket and later the move to professionalism of rugby union all increasing their exposure. Where the NFL once looked glamourous, revolutionary, accessible and colourful compared to the sport offerings in Britain, the native sports had started to catch up. Much of Sky Sports presentation was based on the way American Networks broadcast their sports. WWF had also moved in at the same time to become hugely popular among the younger demographics.
(It’s worth pointing that interest in the NFL in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may well have resisted the dip to quite the level it did in England in the 1990s. Certainly the evidence that the Scottish Claymores remaining viable for years after the London & England Monarchs folded points to this in Scotland, for example.)
When the England team reached the semi-finals in 1990 it did so off the back of two decades of decaying interest and safety in the ‘beautiful game’. People were reconnecting with the sport that summer of 1990, not just the national team as was often commented on this year. There’s still a truth to the idea that some of the fanbase growth in the NFL in the last decade or so came about because tired football fans felt oversaturated by the game, a year round marathon, dominated by money and a few teams. The socialist and competitive structure of the NFL appealed (if you manage to ignore the corporatist, gluttonous owners who actually run the league). Nothing has changed in that respect. The Premier League is still a behemoth where money talks in terms of success. The 24/7 bombardment of football has also created apathy contrasted with the NFL’s scarcity of games over only five months of the year being one of it’s enduring appeals.
The increasing popularity of the NFL in the UK in the 21st century has been the result of a top down project to do just that. 30 years ago it was a bottom up, organic enthusiasm for the sport. There was no plan or goal, the game grew overnight due to Channel 4’s launch and coverage and the NFL could only try to react to that. Before they could really understand how to harness the interest it had disappeared. This time around there is very much a plan. Roger Goodell wants globalisation to be one of his legacies and the owners want more markets to penetrate outside of the topped-out United States.
The foundations of the fandom in 2018 is markedly different to that of 1990. The London Games, regular games not preseason ones, BBC coverage, Sky coverage, Social media and the internet providing access to the NFL to each of us individually that could only ever be dreamed of in 1990. Back then you had to go onto Teletext and hope the scores of the previous night had been updated before school or work Monday mornings if you hadn’t been able to get a decent reception on 873AM American Forces Radio. Does anyone remember the ‘reveal’ button for the scores on the TV remote? Now it’s a minefield to prevent spoilers before you catch up with the condensed games on Game Pass on your mobile by Monday lunchtime.
The popularity by 1990 had been largely built on hour long highlights on Channel 4, a thriving British amateur playing scene and presents from the States brought back from holiday by friends and family. Today’s diet is made up of access to five live games a week, fantasy football offers both a gateway and addiction into the game from year to year. And of course the cult hit of Red Zone. Podcasts, local (mainly London) NFL events and the ability to get any merchandise you can think of in your team’s colours within days. Just from looking around last winter the NFL and New Era had completely cornered the UK wooly hat market.
The world news cycle is also smaller. America’s number one sport will naturally seep into UK culture because the borders have been reduced through social media. You only have to look at stories around Nike and Colin Kaepernick this week or Donald Trump and kneeling players, including those at Wembley last year, to see how news around the NFL will slip into the public conscious. The modern world and it’s communication systems has brought everything closer together, particularly the English language dominant cultures.
28 years ago the numerical popularity of American football might have been greater than it is today. But it was surface level interest and the roots weren’t strong enough to withstand the next fad. Today’s NFL fan is probably in it for the long haul. It’ll take a serious misstep to lose them for a second time, like I dunno, maybe getting a London franchise or something….
The Aaron Rodgers Rule
Much has been made of the new helmet rule. Much discussion has been made around the updated catch rule. There’s been interest in the kick off changes. But possibly the most ruinous new rule has been staring at us in the face, hiding in plain sight all along. When Aaron Rodgers went down last year I winced, not at him breaking his collar bone on the fake turf in Minnesota as he was tackled to the floor by Anthony Barr. No, I winced because I knew at that very moment shadowy figures at 345 Park Avenue would be drawing up the next set of over protective rules that would make defense more impossible to play and defensive player’s wallets lighter.
The new rules that involve even ‘part of a defender’s weight’ landing on the quarterback is now a personal foul and probable fine. Quarterbacks have always been important in the game since the Second World War but the fetishisation of the quarterback (nod to Dan Louw of the old Americarnage podcast) is reaching absurd levels when league executives are trying to do everything in their powers to prevent the most important position on the field from being injured by other players in what is still supposed to be a contact sport. The other 21 supporting cast players aren’t worthy of the same protection I’m afraid.
Player safety is important and it’s admirable to see the NFL trying to take steps, no matter how clumsily or poorly thought out they are, like the new helmet rule. But my sense is that Goodell and his inner circle are often using ‘player safety’ as a vehicle to make offense more prevalent. (Amy Trask Tweeted a couple of years ago that she once sat next to a high level league executive who kep cheering for both teams. When she enquired as to why, he said ‘I cheer for offense’. You don’t have to huge leap of faith to wonder who she was referring to…)
It’s offensive skill players who have benefited most from the recent changes but defensive backs are actually the players most likely to suffer concussions. And what about all the sub-concussive hits that might be more dangerous than the big ones? For all the protections increased for defenseless receivers and precious quarterbacks, what has actually been implemented that would protect the next Junior Seau? The next Mike Webster come to think of it?
This new rule isn’t about head trauma though. It’s about the top quarterbacks being worth more to the league in highlight reels and yards and points than whether the rules on the field are fair or coherent. Quarterbacks are the superstars and you must not touch them. Even if you’re trying to sack them, especially when you’re trying to sack them. Not up high, not down low (after another star was injured that way) and now not by tackling and falling on him. He must be laid down gently and you must fall to the side. Or you will get fined from your significantly smaller wage than the man you just tackled. Because you are a lot less important…
Ravens are a nice Super Bowl bet
The last ten Super Bowl winners came from the top ten teams in the previous season’s DVOA rankings. Despite missing out of the playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens were one of these. Don’t pay attention to the 5-0 preseason but there are some nice pieces coming together on the team, what looks like a rejuvenated Joe Flacco, the running game and a better collection of receivers than in recent years. The defense remains a top half of the league unit, they have the best kicker in the game and Harbaugh is good enough a game manager to get back to the big show. At 45-1 they are the longest outsiders of the top ten DVOA teams from last year, even if you decide to lay it when the playoffs come round, it’s worth a little punt.