CORVALLIS, Ore. – Television and marketing have turned the National Football League from a sporting afterthought into a multi-billion-dollar business, but commercial success might undermine pro football’s unique hold on the American public, says a former player in a new book.
“Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport” was written by Michael Oriard, a former player for Notre Dame and the Kansas City Chiefs, who left the NFL in the 1970s to finish a doctorate in American literature. He holds the title of distinguished professor at Oregon State University, where he has been on the faculty since 1976.
Published by the University of North Carolina Press, “Brand NFL” traces the evolution of the National Football League since the 1960s through key periods of growth, characterized by massive television contracts, lucrative stadium deals, prolonged labor conflict, and aggressive marketing. The league’s promotional push has broadened the appeal of the league to encompass more women, youth and non-traditional sports fans, but Oriard wonders if there may be a cost.
“It would be preposterous to claim the NFL is in trouble,” Oriard said, “yet you wonder how far the league can push the elements of entertainment and spectacle before hard-core sports fans began to rebel. Football is a unique fusion of violence and balletic grace, played out by opposing teams with tremendous intensity. Fans who are drawn to that drama don’t show up to games to watch Britney Spears in the pre-game concert or Michael Jackson at halftime.”
OSU’s Oriard says the NFL will know it has gone too far when bids by the major networks for telecast rights began to decline, sponsors refuse to renew contracts at the same high rates, and plush luxury boxes in new stadiums go unsold. None of these appear in danger of happening in the near future, he acknowledged.
Yet television ratings for individual NFL telecasts are down, Oriard pointed out, even though the cumulative audience has grown with the overall population. Literally hundreds of TV channels fight for viewer interest and the NFL sees itself competing as much with MTV and blockbuster films, as with the NBA and Major League Baseball, he added.
“Sport touches us much more deeply than entertainment, and it lasts longer,” Oriard said. “If you detach the importance of sport from football, something else in the entertainment field will come along and capture our attention. The NFL simply cannot afford to lose its appeal to the serious sports fan.”
Oriard played as a backup offensive lineman for the Chiefs for four years, but then found training camp in 1974 disrupted by the first of three NFL strikes that eventually shaped the league’s labor policies. Oriard joined about three-fourths of the league’s players on the 44-day strike and returned to find himself out of a job.
He played out the season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League so he could “leave football on my own terms,” and returned to Stanford University to finish his Ph.D. With low salaries and a long off-season, players from Oriard’s generation were more likely than today’s millionaires to prepare for a career outside football.
“I call myself a casualty of the strike, not a victim of the strike,” he said.
Oriard, who now is associate dean of Oregon State’s College of Liberal Arts, is the author of several other books that look at the cultural history of sports in America. “Brand NFL” covers the emergence of the NFL in the 1960s as a major phenomenon that surpassed the college game and Major League Baseball, and eventually expanded into a $7 billion industry.
His book, which is due to hit stores on Sept. 3, went to press just before the Michael Vick incident surfaced publicly. Yet the attention paid to the Atlanta Falcons quarterback for his alleged involvement in a dog-fighting ring is emblematic of how the success of the NFL creates media sideshows that often have nothing to do with the actual sport, Oriard said.
In his book, Oriard writes that the modern NFL was born on Dec. 28, 1958, when the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in sudden-death overtime before a national television audience of 30 million. It was the first nationally televised NFL game and within four years, newly appointed commissioner Pete Rozelle had negotiated the first national TV contract on behalf of all NFL teams.
Oriard charts the influence of television through succeeding decades, highlighted by the emergence of ESPN and Fox Sports as competitors for NFL telecasts to keep rights fees escalating. He also examines the NFL’s “labor peace” achieved in court in 1993 only after failed strikes in 1974, 1982 and 1987. And he analyzes the role of ownership and the inevitable evolution of the owner from passionate fan to entrepreneurial CEO.
Oriard says his goal with the book is to analyze the growth of the NFL from the perspective of cultural historian who happens to be a former player – and a backup lineman at that – to try to understand how the influence of money has changed the game. He insists that he isn’t out to bash the NFL and doesn’t really question its financial viability. But given football’s powerful appeal since the game was first organized in the 1870s, he does think it is important to raise questions about the implications for branding the game as entertainment instead of sport.
“In its infancy, the NFL was criticized for lacking college football’s pageantry and spectacle,” Oriard pointed out. “Pro players were thought to be brutal and lacking the ‘die-for-dear-old-Rutgers’ college spirit. Eventually, fans of the NFL quit apologizing for these ‘failings’ and began to embrace these same qualities as virtues.
“Now the extravagantly marketed and commercialized NFL, out of a need to generate revenue to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars of debt on the purchase of franchises, must be careful not to alienate the fans who care most deeply about the game,” Oriard added.
“Entertainment trends are fleeting. It is the inherent nature of the sport that gives NFL football its powerful appeal and what is most at-risk.”