In the normal course of things, a great media migration would begin this weekend.
They would flock from all over to wherever the Super Bowl is being held. At a regular event, held in regular times, about 3,500 accredited media would be on hand.
Generally, they set up shop at a convention centre connected to a hotel complex. It is possible to do the entire week leading into the game without once going outside.
Most of the stories are spoon fed. Team X talks one day. Team Y on the next. The Super Bowl halftime act the day after that.
No league is better at anticipating what journalists want (concentrated access in time-limited situations) when they want it (early morning, leaving the evenings free) where they want it (near a lobby bar).
For the price of a gift bag, a few drink tickets and some hotel discounts, these reporters do the bulk of the NFL’s Super Bowl marketing. They are the unpaid public-relations arm of the league.
It’s the sweetest racket in sports. The NFL has got so enormous, so hegemonic, it doesn’t need to bother with it any more.
This year, Super Bowl media week is virtual, meaning there is no such thing as Super Bowl media week. But the stories will be the same, hitting the same beats, at the same times, in the same volume. The only difference is a bit of money saved on the open bar.
If this was the year sports writ large faced its Ghost of Christmas Future, the NFL has managed to sleep through the night.
The league did everything wrong, and it all ended up exactly right. Bizarrely, COVID-19 has been good to football.
A year ago, the NFL was beset by nagging problems. As the No. 1 player in the marketplace, it was paying for its pre-eminence.
TV viewership numbers were falling. A racial reckoning sucked up all the oxygen in the room. The sitting U.S. president handled the league like a squeezebox – alternately embracing and berating it. The other side of the political spectrum had begun to treat the sport like a spoke in the conservative axis of evil.
Then COVID hove into sight. All the other problems receded as this Godzilla of a problem took over.
Every other league had game plans for the pandemic, none of which worked nearly as well as advertised. The NHL, NBA and MLB were at different points bogged down by internal and external fighting over what the words “health” and “safety” actually mean.
Those leagues bled money to continue playing. The players thanked them by whining about how boring it is inside a bubble.
The NFL’s plan was radical and brilliant – it didn’t bother making a plan.
Sure, the league would test for COVID, and close some stadiums to fans, but for the most part it was business as usual. Same flights. Same hotels. Same practice schedules with the same rosters.
There was no serious consideration of cancelling the season – a pandering posture every other league tried on for size, and then had trouble wriggling out of.
For the past few years, PR types have combed the media landscape looking for a way to fight off online criticism, especially the internal sort. When people are right up in your grill, screaming in your face, how do you walk the line between engaging them and surrendering to them?
The NFL has figured it out – “We hear you. We just don’t care.”
There is no comeback to, “We hear you. We just don’t care.” From that point on, you are complaining into the void.
The only way to have an impact on a business that has dropped that large an apathy bomb on you is nuclear retaliation – you must stop consuming its product.
But all the recent annoyance about concussions killing its employees has taught the NFL a key lesson – people won’t stop watching football. If lethal carnage isn’t enough to convince them, nothing is.
People may talk a great deal about giving up football. Many people will pretend to have done it. But, in the end, they won’t. Especially not at this time of year.
Girded with that knowledge, the NFL didn’t hit COVID head on. It stepped around and past it. There is no pandemic if you act as though there isn’t.
From the standpoint of public complaint, the NFL’s new pandemic problem swamped its old problems. Because the NFL didn’t care about the new problem, that meant it had no problems at all.
Every once in a while, the league would have to cancel or reschedule a game because of an outbreak.
The media, public-health establishment and half of America would try jumping on top of the league for its irresponsibility.
The league responded – “We hear you. We just don’t care.”
And the media, public-health establishment and half of America ended up judo-flipped into the nearest hedgerow. That gets embarrassing after a while, so they stopped trying.
Now we are a week from the Super Bowl, and not just any Super Bowl. The tastiest Super Bowl matchup in several years – Tom Brady vs. Tom Brady 2.0. The Uggs guy vs. the Head and Shoulders guy. And in a weird twist, both guys play on teams coached by their dads.
Tampa vs. Kansas City is an ad buyer’s and a reporter’s dream for the same reason. The story – teacher vs. student – is so easily understood (and sold). The game itself hardly matters. Everyone’s already projecting themselves to the moment after the game ends, when Brady and Patrick Mahomes meet at midfield. What will they say to each other? How will they carry themselves?
If you can get people thinking about that moment, your sporting event is a massive success long before it’s played.
None of baseball, basketball or hockey got that moment last year. They won’t get it this year, either. Because they lack the NFL’s plan, which is no plan.
You may not like the way the NFL does its business. It’s certainly not what you’d call an empathetic corporation.
But the NFL does at least understand what it is not – not an experiment in social justice, not a reflection of the current morality, not a proxy for the people it sells to.
It is an entertainment product defined by controlled violence and rampant jingoism. It is America in its most distilled, capitalistic, don’t-tread-on-me form.
When you are America incarnate, you don’t need to explain yourself. You don’t need the media to do it for you. You just have to show up and crack some heads together. People like that.