By Jim McCarthy Dec 6, 2010 1 comment

NFL: Distant Early Warning

Back in the Cold War, there was a system set up in northern Canada to give the United States the earliest possible warning of a Soviet nuclear attack.  It was called the Distant Early Warning system.

Right now, the NFL is as close to invulnerable as an entertainment property may be.  It was the most popular sport in America 25 years ago, 10 years ago and 5 years ago, but compared to all those times, it is even more popular now.  It has reached the point, in terms of tv viewing and popularity, where comparing it to the other major sports is nearly pointless.

BUT, my own version of the Distant Early Warning system has detected the possibility of weakness, and, no surprise to me, it shows up first in the live product.

The NFL in-stadium experience is awful, unless you’re a drunken idiot.

And this is not for the usual reasons an experience is bad, like poor quality facilities, poor service or mismanagement of crowds.  It’s because going to an NFL game is vaguely like walking into a bad neighborhood from a movie, and if you’re wearing the wrong color, that might be all it takes to have an experience you’ll never forget, if you get out alive.  (Ok, you’ll get out alive, but you’ll probably never want to go back.)

Rick Reilly wrote a piece for ESPN that goes in depth on the subject here.  Here’s a key tidbit:

“You have everything you need to take your kid to an NFL game this Sunday? Program? Binoculars? Nunchucks?

Actually, if I were you, I wouldn’t take my kid. I’d take Manny Pacquiao. NFL stadiums are rougher than sandpaper thongs lately.

These days, NFL fans make NHL fans look like Miss Manners. They’re often buy-a-vowel drunk, spewing cuss words and looking to fight. And the men are sometimes worse.

This year alone:

A plastered Browns fan tackled an 8-year-old kid in a New York Jets jersey, cutting the boy’s ankle.

A man was stabbed and another bruised before a game at Candlestick in San Francisco. Police were looking for a fan in a 49ers jersey.

A man at Soldier Field in Chicago fell to his death from 20 feet up on Sunday.

Having fun, kids?”

The article also has links to several in-stadium videos that are pretty nauseating.  It’s not that there’s much real violence.  Just a lot of nastiness.  If there were real violence, the League wouldn’t tolerate it for a second. But I don’t think it should tolerate the kind of thing that happens today either.

Why?  Not because I’m a member of the Good Manners Society, but because once it gets out that normal people don’t belong near an NFL game, it’s just a matter of time before they start re-thinking their safer, more distant interest in the game.

Because the live version of everything should be the premium version of that thing.  Going to the stadium should be like going to football Mecca for the fan.  If it’s not, there will be a gradual sense that the “product” has a giant hole where its heart should be.

Most of us who are NFL fans now were NFL fans as kids.  We idolized the players, and getting to actually see them play would be the pinnacle of fanhood for a little kid, as it is, frankly, for anyone.

If nobody other than the “jersey boys” (as Reilly calls them, referring to guys who wear team jerseys to the games and tend to be most likely to make obnoxious asses of themselves) feels comfortable at the games, it’s not just kids who won’t go; it’s everyone else too.  In my experience of selling millions of tickets over the last decade, if something doesn’t work for moms or young women, it eventually isn’t going to work in American society.  Not to say that the NFL needs to have passionate fans among that crowd.  But if those women see it as abhorrent, it will gradually be starved of resources.  It might take a generation, but it will happen.

(By the way, don’t wear jerseys, guys.  You look like a tool.  More seriously, you look like a member of the booster club who couldn’t make the team.   No man should wear a shirt with another man’s name on it after age 12, unless you are the father of the player in question, and even then, reconsider.)

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