Do We Really Want Nonstop Action From Football?
“Just keep matriculating that ball down the field, boys!” So went the Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster Hank Stram’s famous malapropism, a directive which meant: In football, you advance on your opponents gradually, with grit and guile, forcing them to yield terrain until you attain the sweet fruit of a field goal or a touchdown. Supposing you don’t know what the word “matriculate” actually means, it makes the entire enterprise sound like a military exhibition; you imagine Hannibal painstakingly matriculating his elephants through Spain and into the shadows of the Roman goal line. For most of its long history, this was how the sport was watched. N.F.L. games run only slightly shorter than awards ceremonies, and sometimes you look outside at a nice autumn Sunday and wonder why you are inside watching four hours of tedium.
More than a decade ago, before everyone else realized modern media were headed in the direction of full-blown dopamine overload, the N.F.L. unleashed a remedy for this problem: N.F.L. RedZone, a Sunday sports channel dedicated to the live broadcast of every touchdown. Or if, God forbid, there were no touchdowns for any meaningful amount of time during the 13 or so games broadcast on a typical Sunday afternoon, it would show the near touchdowns. This nonstop action is like getting to eat doughnuts for every meal and can make you feel similarly unwell. It becomes hard to keep track of any single game; in a way, the difference between them seems not to matter. Football, once so orderly, begins to feel unruly and avant-garde. Events unmoor themselves from context. “Here is a thing that happened,” RedZone seems to cackle. “Figure it out for yourself.”
On the second-to-last Sunday in September, RedZone showed me 26 teams and 66 touchdowns — long returns and screen passes, pick-sixes and goal-line pile ups. In the first five minutes of the first nine games, very little happened, but the impeccably smooth, hugely square-jawed host Scott Hanson did not panic; he’s like a man with an unbeatable stock tip, the cat that ate the canary. Things would pop off soon enough, and peak toward evening, as the imperative shifted to covering as much action as possible in real time. “Triple box!” Hanson bellowed. “Drama in the late window!” He meant that three of the games that began between 4:05 p.m. and 4:25 p.m. were being decided in the final minutes, and we were going to try to follow all three at once. RedZone often plows through the action with the subtlety of a barge, but the “triple box” is where it becomes balletic, leaping among the Cowboys last-second field-goal attempt, the Vikings’ back-and-forth with the Cardinals and the Titans heading to overtime against the Seahawks. It was as if Hanson were M.C.-ing three separate parties at once; astonishingly, he handled each with complete lucidity.
There was a time when I found RedZone off-putting; it made me feel lost and overstimulated and seasick, and I soon went back to experiencing games the boring way. Now, though, revisiting it after several years, RedZone made more sense. Something had happened to me. I did not not like it. I did not feel woozy in the same way.
In retrospect, the broadcast’s advent feels like a foundational monument in the modern ethos of avoiding boredom at any cost. What once seemed extreme has become commonplace. The internet now offers a kind of RedZone for practically anything, from elections to celebrity gossip to natural disasters, a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of sensation, with snippets of video commenting on action that has only just taken place or is about to happen. Perhaps RedZone saw the future, and the future was everything at once.
Or maybe that was only part of the playing field, because this fall has featured the rise of a very different mode of N.F.L. viewership. Much is said about the supposedly short attention spans of today’s young people, but it’s also true that plenty of them happily spend time in hourslong livestreams of popular online figures doing nothing more consequential than playing video games or gabbing about entertainment — quality moments spent with Twitch streamers, YouTube celebrities, podcasters or whoever else invites the world into a loosely structured hang. And it turns out that football coverage offers this sort of future, too, via ESPN2’s recent simulcasts of Monday-night games, featuring the siblings and former star quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning.
Despite or maybe because of their relentlessly ah-shucksing All-Americanism, I’ve always suspected that the Mannings possess a genuine weird streak. Their Monday night showcase is complete confirmation of this. As Peyton and Eli watch the game, they alternate between deep analysis, ballbusting banter and completely unrelated parentheticals. Peyton stands, puts on a helmet and pretends he is quarterbacking in the game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ tight end Rob Gronkowski, appearing as a guest, is interrupted by barking, so he introduces us to his French bulldog, Ralphie, and insists that if Ralphie were a football player, “he would be a fullback.” The conversation spins on from there: Would Ralphie prefer to block or catch passes? What about Gronk? Lest we forget: There is a football game going on during all of this. In fact it is, for the moment, a surprisingly competitive matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions.
If N.F.L. RedZone is the equivalent of a thrill-a-minute cinematic blockbuster, then the Mannings’ simulcast is more like the shaggy-dog hangouts Richard Linklater specializes in. The Mannings watch the way we watch, perking up when something exciting happens and otherwise filling long stretches of matriculation by shooting the breeze, cracking wise or pantomiming gameplay in overwrought ways. It’s like Springsteen’s “Glory Days” meets “Mystery Science Theater 3000” at a particularly antic sports bar. Between its first and second weeks on air, ratings improved by 138 percent.
ESPN may be in the process of figuring out something that long eluded the N.F.L. (and, to be honest, me): that tens of millions of viewers would happily give up the whiplash of constant cutaways and simply enjoy parasocial online relationships with others watching the same games in real time. In hindsight, this feels not only obvious but strangely comforting. RedZone stripped away the languid, social elements of an often slow-moving sport. The Manning brothers’ response seems to manage the neat trick of helping us chill out.
It is tempting to try to draw conclusions about what sort of person would prefer one over the other. Are you the cut-to-the-chase thrill fiend whose idea of a good time is seven hours of nonstop scoring, or are you the laid-back indolent who would rather watch two genial goofballs interview their friends than train your attention on a single game for more than five minutes? And yet I suspect that at this point we are all, increasingly, both of those. We zip along at lighting speed while idling in neutral, matriculating the ball across the modern world.
Source photographs: Getty Images; screen grabs from YouTube.