By Jim McCarthy Sep 9, 2010 2 comments

3 Things the NFL Can Teach the Rest of the Live Business

The grizzly bear has crawled out of its winter hibernation chamber as of tonight. All the creatures, great and small, in its domain must once again acknowledge its benevolent but certain rule.

The National Football League is back in action tonight, with its first regular season game of the year.

Many of my readers in the arts and theatre world have eyes so glazed at this point that Krispy Kreme would blush. But press on! The NFL was once under-appreciated, regional, weird, overwhelmed by the power and pull of other mainstream forms of entertainment.

Not anymore. If you’re not a sports fan, you may thoughtlessly group all the pro sports together in your mind, but you shouldn’t. The NFL rules unchallenged. Comparing the NFL to the National Hockey League, for example, is like saying that Wicked and Shrek are both successful musicals.  Technically, true, yes, but…

So why?  Why is the NFL by far the most popular thing in American entertainment?  And what can others learn from it?  Here’s what I think:

1.  The NFL has more drama than the fifth act of Hamlet. Seriously, if you ask a football fan about this upcoming season, he could probably rattle off about 15 truly intriguing “story lines” that will unfold as the season progresses.  I can name a couple just to give you an idea of what I mean: will the two prima donna Wide Receivers get along on their new team in Cincinnati or will they destroy their team?  Can Brett Favre prove that a 41 year old can still be an iron man and compete at a top level with guys now literally half his age?  Will the New Orleans Saints carry the flag of their beleaguered city once again into glory?  Can Joe Flacco, the kid who came from nowhere (University of Delaware) prove he can compete with the guys with the fancy pedigree?  I could literally keep doing this for a few more paragraphs.  The NFL is so rich in stories and the season tells those stories.  It’s not just games; it’s the trajectory of characters and outcomes over time that makes the whole thing riveting.  No other sport has anything like it.  Hell, almost no genre of any kind does.

2.  The talent level is unreal. Running a 40 yard dash in 4.4 seconds is tough, but running a 4.4 second 40 when you’re 225 pounds is unbelievable, but that’s something Adrian Peterson can do.  The people who make it to this league are big, fast, and strong, and they know their craft.

3.  The League doesn’t ever rest on its laurels. The NFL doesn’t have a lot of purists running things.  They make changes and they make them rapidly when it’s called for.  They look to the future and they figure out where the opportunities are.  Rules change and if they’re wrong they change back.  They pioneered instant reply for officials and they embraced Fantasy Football when a lot of people thought it was a “distraction” from the “real” game.  They punish swiftly and severely, as Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger can tell you.  In other words, they set standards, hold to them, and then push them forward based on what they hear in the marketplace.  They are neither complacent nor, at least outwardly, arrogant.

This is all worth thinking about if you’re running a theatre or performing arts venue.  If you could push a button and have a couple dozen compelling story lines, truly stunning talent, and an organization with a culture of creating excellence, would you push it?  What would happen if you did?

(And by the way, if “Holy Sh*t” is the best theatre people can aspire to, they’ve got no chance of catching up to this.)

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