Television: Better Than the Real Thing—and Getting More So Every Year
It’s the primary means by which fans connect with football, and as technology improves—bigger screens, sharper images and magic we can only imagine right now—TV’s power and influence on the NFL will only grow
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in The MMQB’s series NFL 95: A History of Pro Football in 95 Objects, commemorating the 95th season of the NFL in 2014. On Wednesdays through the start of training camp in July, The MMQB will unveil one long-form story on an artifact of particular significance to the history of the NFL, accompanied by other objects that trace the rise of professional football in America, from the NFL’s founding in a Hupmobile dealership in Canton in 1920 to its place today at the forefront of American sports and popular culture.
Gordy Brown is a man with options. First, in his home in Sanford, Fla., there is the 75-inch Samsung HD television, which is permanently assigned to his beloved Detroit Lions during the NFL season. There’s also the 50-inch Samsung HD television tuned to the Red Zone Channel, so Brown can keep up with his three fantasy football teams. Next in line is the 46-inch Samsung HDTV which is responsible for what Brown considers the best NFL game every Sunday. There’s also a fourth (a 32-inch Samsung HDTV) and fifth television (a 42-inch LG HDTV) available in case his guests have specific rooting interests. And we’re not even counting Brown’s tablet, which is usually airing an NFL game on Sundays too.
But things really get interesting for Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football.
That’s when Brown abandons his living room and heads outside to the lanai (a covered porch) and his in-ground pool. There, he has a dream home theater setup—a 16-by-9-foot screen and an Optoma HD66 3D-capable projector. Brown says he has been infatuated with projectors since high school, and one night while in sitting in his pool he had an epiphany: What if he could install a projector poolside? “I’m a computer guy so I love to play with electronics and I’m also a sports nut,” Brown said. “Sports is all I watch.”
His electronic outdoor Shangri-La also includes surround sound and the ability to stream the Internet. Brown said he has religiously watched primetime football poolside every week for the past three NFL seasons. Not surprisingly with his indoor-outdoor setup, he and his wife, Jen, have company over most NFL weeks. They also share space with a four-year-old American bulldog named Joey and a three-year-old boxer-beagle named Jazzie.
“I could not imagine weekends without it, especially being a Lions fan and the Fantasy football aspect on top of that,” said Brown, a 27-year-old network administrator for the City of Altamonte Springs, Fla. “The outdoor setup is my baby, my project, and I love it.”
Brown, who grew up in Mayville, Mich., and retains his Wolverine State allegiances, is obviously not alone as a member of the NFL’s Television Nation. Much has been written about how the home-viewing experience has become far superior to the game atmosphere, and in fact you can easily make a compelling argument that television is the most significant football-related object in the lives of NFL fans today. Last year’s opening weekend set of games (Sept. 5-9, 2013) drew 108.4 million viewers, according to the league, the fourth consecutive Kickoff Weekend with a total reach exceeding 105 million viewers. The conference championship games last January averaged 53.7 million viewers, the most-watched conference championship Sunday in more than 30 years. And despite the blowout nature of Super Bowl XLVIII, the game between Seattle and Denver set a record for the most-watched television show in U.S. history with 111.5 million viewers, topping the previous record of the 111.34 million who watched the 2012 Super Bowl.
Two of those are a football-loving couple in the North Hills area near Pittsburgh who also have distinctive home-viewing setup. Michael Puck, a 32-year-old social media marketer, is a born and bred Bengals fan, and his wife, Erica, is a native of Steeltown and a stay-at-home mother of three-year-old Dylan and two-year-old Austin. The couple have two 75-inch televisions ($4,000 each) mounted side by side on the wall of their basement, a room split between a play area for their young sons and football-watching for the adults. The couple has a longtime subscription to DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket, and every weekend the television on the left is set to Michael’s Bengals while the one on the right plays Erica’s Steelers. (They also keep helmets of each team below the televisions and own Bengals and Steelers beanbag chairs.) If one team wins and the other loses, the fan of the losing team is charged with making dinner. “We have a friendly rivalry,” says Michael. “But I have conceded that the Steelers are one of the marquee franchises in the NFL. At least I have had some bragging rights the last couple of years.”
Puck had season tickets for the Bengals from 2004 to 2007 when he lived in Indianapolis and made the two-hour drive to Cincinnati for every Bengals home game. But echoing many fans, he said the home experience has become too enjoyable (and too comfortable) for him to keep attending games in person. “I would much rather be at home and watch two games at the same time than fight traffic, pay vending prices and all that kind of stuff,” Puck says. “My in-laws have season tickets to the Steelers, and I will be honest with you: You could not pay me to go to the games.”
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So why does the NFL work so well on television? Part of it is scarcity. Each team plays one game week per week, making the campaign akin to a season-long playoff format. Something Hall of Fame broadcaster John Madden told the Baltimore Sun in 2005 also remains true: The sport is set up to run like episodic television. “It is the perfect sport to televise,” Madden said. “We have change of possession, and there’s a timeout every change of possession, and there’s a commercial.”
History is also a factor. Michael MacCambridge, the author of America’s Game, an expansive history of the NFL that was published in 2004, said that the revenue-sharing agreement the late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle pushed through Congress and the league’s owners in 1961 is inextricably linked to television’s impact on the sport. The agreement championed by Rozelle removed the financial disparities between teams and became the fiscal engine that drove the NFL’s wealth. A visionary when it came to the potential of national television, Rozelle convinced the individual league owners of the power of collectivism, persuading them to give up their local television rights in exchange for selling the product as a league-wide package. He brilliantly foresaw television’s power as a growth agent at a time when NFL owners were still of the belief that the primary way to sell their product was through in-home viewing. Today, the network television partners—CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN—provide the NFL with about $6 billion annually. By 2027, Navigate Research predicts, such media-rights revenues could reach $17 billion, according to USA Today.
“If you have the revenue-sharing agreement without television, you would have teams arguing over when their home games are and who gets to play on Thanksgiving and holidays,” said MacCambridge, who is working on a book about the late Hall of Fame Steelers coach Chuck Noll. “The league would have a piecemeal, small-minded mindset.”
If you want other touchstones involving television that helped build NFL, MacCambridge suggests the iconic 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants (watched by 45 million Americans and dubbed by SI “The Greatest Game Ever Played”) and the creation of Monday Night Football in 1970. Professional football had become a hot sport in America during the 1960s—Time magazine declared it the sport of that decade—but people still thought Rozelle was crazy for wanting to air pro football in primetime. ABC originally passed on the Monday night package before signing off on it and airing the program in 1970. “It is the single most influential sports series of all time,” says MacCambridge, “because everything since then followed in the wake—from storylines going into games to keying on certain players.”
From a technology standpoint, Ken Aagaard, an executive vice president of engineering, operations and production services for CBS Sports and a 30-year sports television executive, suggests that instant replay, the first-down line and aerial cameras were key television movers. I’d also add the creation of the mythmaking, artistically brilliant propaganda machine known as NFL Films.
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So what kind of impact will television have on the NFL 10 years from now? There is one surefire lock: You will clearly have a better-looking picture. Ultra high definition television, also known as 4K and 8K viewing, is coming in some form. The technology has at least four times the resolution of current high-definition televisions, and will become more commonplace when the price comes down and broadcasters get more bandwidth for it.
Viewers should also expect graphics and animation to continue to evolve at the pace technology allows it. NBC’s Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli suggested that a football field will be equipped with enough cameras so viewers can see a 360-degree angle of any play from any place on the field. He also speculated about visuals that we can only dream of right now. Gaudelli says he has spoken with scientists and the conversations turn to, “Could we ever get to the point where we could start digitally removing people from the field to see a clear view of what we want to see?”
“Football is a game where you could have 150 cameras, but if the bodies are aligned a certain way, none of those cameras will have an unobstructed view,” Gaudelli says. “So let’s say we want to see if Ben Roethlisberger broke the plane of the goal line but the view is obstructed by a player. Could we digitally remove that player and then, based on GPS data, recreate Roethlisberger’s body on the plane of the goal line so we can definitely say if the ball did or did not break the plane? That is where I think you will get to, manipulating pictures. There are some countries with high-end defense systems that can do that, and that is where I think it will go.”
Most of the sports television people The MMQB spoke with also predicted the Megacast concept would come to the NFL, a setup in which viewers will have access to numerous add-on features, extra camera angles and announcers geared toward niche broadcasting (i.e. a broadcast featuring the All-22 camera angle and football coaches talking about the game). Aagaard expects networks to have multi-screen capability that can measure anything from how far every player has run on a play to the specific distances between players, to deep, immersive fantasy stats.
“If you look at sports video games, you can zoom in on any one player’s perspective; that will be available in the future,” Aagaard says. “In 10 or 20 years the viewer will have the ability to view the play anyway he wants. Maybe it’s some sort of joystick and he decides if he wants to watch something from the quarterback’s or defensive back’s point of view. The technology will be there. It will just be about the distribution and cost.”
“Where it could be different in 10 years is the placement of cameras,” adds ESPN Monday Night Football announcer Mike Tirico. “Remember the XFL days? Those point-of-view shots from the official or player were jarring. What is to say you can’t put a camera on the field every five yards with a function to see the footwork of lineman? Let’s say a referee calls a roughing the passer penalty. We could see where his eyes are looking, what he is seeing, and he won’t be slowed down with a little lipstick camera on his cap. You need the league to go along with, this but did you think 10 or 15 years ago that we would be able to interview an NBA coach on the floor before the fourth quarter?”
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What will this mean for game broadcasters and the director and producers of NFL telecasts? For starters, you should expect the same cavalcade of former players and coaches to be in the booth. Tirico says he couldn’t envision a time when an NFL television broadcast did not have a coach of former player involved on air.
“The sport, more than any other, is hard to understand because of the complexities of play-calling and the intricacies of 11 people working along the same path,” Tirico says. “It always needs someone to answer why and how.”
Tirico does predict, though, that his job will change (in fact, it already has) because of technology, especially audio. “I am much more conscious now than when I started doing Monday Night Football of the audio of the quarterback at the line of scrimmage. That has gotten much better. There are mics in some of the pads of offensive lineman so you can hear the line calls, and that has impacted how the announcers call the game. If the audio increases, with more players having microphones and more natural sounds, that would be something we’d have to adjust to.”
Gaudelli ponders whether a woman will come to the forefront and become a play-by-play announcer for NFL telecasts. He also expects, perhaps optimistically, that real-time reporting on television will become more valuable and that access will open up.
“Could I see a day where we start broadcasting practices for the Dallas Cowboys?” Gaudelli says. “Yeah, I do. Will that be national? No. But it could be a local play for the league to generate more revenue and more access for the fans.”
Aagaard says new technology will inundate the behind-the-scenes people in the broadcast truck with many more choices, in a small amount of time. “One of the problems now is to find something,” Aagaard says. “You know you have that great replay, but where is it? There are a lot of decisions for these producers to make, and these decisions are critical. It’s possible that viewers might see things before the producers do if they have access to all the cameras.”
Regarding the auxiliary shows surrounding games, ESPN coordinating producer Seth Markman sees gambling and fantasy football elements becoming much more overt on NFL programming 10 years from now. “I think in 2024 [gambling references] will be commonplace,” says Markman, who runs ESPN’s NFL studio programming. “I don’t think it will be something people tip-toe around. Are we really serving viewers right now by saying the Patriots are going to beat the Jaguars in the game when everyone wants to know if they’ll win by two touchdowns?
If you talk to NFL fans such as Brown and Pace, they expect the home viewing experience to continue to improve, making it a major challenge for teams to convince people to break away from their television utopias and come to the stadium.
“I would imagine in 10 years that something new and innovative will enhance the home-viewing experience,” Puck says. “The NFL has already taken some measures to improve their in-stadium experience, but unless the league can replicate the comforts of my own home, watching multiple games at the same time, being out of the elements, my own refreshments, I am positive I will still be watching at home in 2024 with my wife and 13- and 12-year old sons. And I can speak for certain that they will still be rooting against my team.”
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