The weekend’s AFC and NFC championship games were overshadowed by the real story: 3.3 million people marching in protest across the country. As our collective conscious moves onto more pertinent matters than lining billionaire’s pockets, is there a future for the NFL?
The New England Patriots punched a ticket to their seventh Super Bowl appearance this century in a 36-17 rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday evening. They will travel to Houston to face the Atlanta Falcons, winners of six in a row, in Super Bowl LI.
But the question remains, will anyone outside of northeast Georgia or South Boston care?
There will be two or three narratives the NFL and its surrogates will push over the next fortnight, the prominent one will be the return of Tom Brady to the sports’ biggest stage. Brady, for his part, has a good chance to be handed his record-setting fifth Lombardi Trophy by evening’s end. It would be fitting closure to a revenge season that started with a four-game suspension for the quarterback’s alleged role in using under-inflated footballs during the first half of the AFC title game two seasons ago.
Indeed, the loudest cheer Sunday at Gillette Stadium was the home crowd’s taunting of commissioner Roger Goodell (who was not at the game) “Rog-er. Rog-er. Rog-er.”
The Patriots have also battled a slew of injuries, including losing tight end Rob Gronkowski in early December to a back problem that required surgery. Through this century, Brady is their constant, and maybe the singular compelling figure remaining in the cookie-cutter NFL.
Like an artist in the autumn of his career, Brady relies on old tricks to make it all seem brand new. See: a first half flea flicker that locked up the Steelers’ secondary freeing former Penn State lacrosse star Chris Hogan, the Pats’ speedy white guy receiver du jour, for a wide-open 34-yard touchdown.
It was perhaps the only memorable football play of the weekend, or maybe these playoffs.
Atlanta does score plenty (they’re averaging 39/game during its current win streak and 400+ yards per game in their past five wins.) But the predictably above average play of quarterback Matt Ryan is emblematic of the kind of milquetoast start-and-stop action the NFL is most closely associated with now. There seems to be little unpredictability or derring-do during marches down the field. Everything is choreographed and seemingly a conclusion foregone.
Perhaps it is the league’s lone rebel franchise — the Patriots — at the dusk of their relevance but still punching and kicking is the lone compelling, if not watchable, enterprise.
Fans seem to be waking up to the notion that they don’t really need the sport all that much anymore. And the exodus is happening, fast. Last year at this time 53.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the Denver Broncos defeat the Patriots in the AFC champion game. That was the second-most ever to watch a playoff game (first was Patriots/Jets in 2011 — notice a pattern?) Sunday estimates show fewer than 30 million tuned into the Falcons and Packers with slightly better (above 32 million) estimated for the Steelers and Pats.
Those numbers reflect the interest in the NFL waning this year wholesale. Monday Night Football viewership was down 24% from this time last year, and Sunday and Thursday night games were down around 20% each.
The NFL should be worried. By 2018 (if we’re all still around) the Millennial cohort will have the most buying power in the world. And guess what? Catching NFL action ranks somewhere between eating cereal and using fossil fuels as things they want no part of.
In a recent study, more than 80% of Millennials stated that they were less trusting of the NFL than basketball, baseball, hockey or NASCAR. Yes, you read that right even NASCAR (though someone should tell them the cars aren’t self-driving or electric.) Out of those surveyed in the study, 61% identified the NFL as a “sleazy” organization, while 54% saw it as being anti-gay.
It’s important to look at the events of the weekend wholesale as well about how we measure new norms and how they are changing before our very eyes. While there was moderate interest in the presidential inauguration (30 million viewers) barely edging out the Clinton and Bush inaugurations but behind Obama, Carter, Reagan and Nixon in the modern era — also those numbers are not adjusted for the rise in number of potential viewers — the real story of the weekend was the estimated 3.3 million who turned out and marched in protest on Saturday, making the Women’s March the largest protest in U.S. history.
The energy that was on display across the country (and the world) was not just drawn from Millennials but it was also clear the cohort most strongly represented in every big city and even places like Lake Tahoe, Wichita and Anchorage. The mandate for Trump is nearly nonexistent in demographics that aren’t the diseased and dying branch of gripping (and groping), angry and white. As host Aziz Ansari said during his nine-minute SNL monologue Saturday night, “We are 40% (immigrants) and we are not going away.”
How does this all tie in? Look no further than America’s Finest City. Dean Spanos, the billionaire owner of the San Diego Chargers of LA, was rebuffed at the ballot box in November — so the league moved his team up the road five hours (in moderate traffic) where he gets to Airbnb the Rams new stadium in Inglewood. Not exactly a blueprint for minting money as his family did in San Diego for more than a half century. Fans are woke to the NFL’s shoddy product and San Diego, for its part, has already moved on from the Bolts faster than a Tinder match as they get courted by MLS for an expansion team.
NFL franchises are pros at convincing communities to pay for their toys and line the pockets of their owners, for making voters believe they contribute to the public good. But that myth is so 20 years ago. San Diego, for its part, seems to be relieved that they’ve been exorcised of their perennial loser/traffic inhibitor.
The NFL won’t be dead tomorrow and people may well tune in Feb.5 en masse to watch Brady’s last stand. But know this, he is now the anomaly, the throwback, as is the team that has recently taken power in this nation and their efforts to bury the voice and heart of the people over the next four years in exchange for untold personal profit.
We are at the gates but the fortress is formidable. Old white guy billionaires have a stranglehold on us and they will shake and quiver and refuse to die like a Kathy Bates villain, but make no mistake, these institutions and these oppressors are on notice.
And now it’s up to us to continue to come together and speak as one with our hearts, minds, time …and wallets.
Photo: San Diego Women’s March – Bridget Clerkin