Friday, November 30, 2007

Bill Simmons and the NFL Network

Bill Simmons (aka, The Sports Guy) is one of the few successful "fan writers" in the sports media, and is somebody who I generally like. While anybody's opinion on the actual sports can't really ever be described as right or wrong, it's his social commentary that seems to be what got him to where he is. The ESPN writer is usually somebody who connects with his readers, but in his latest article, he has done everything but.

Let me preface this with saying that I don't like to slam other writers. Not only is it pointless, but as a writer, it could only come back to haunt me. But this article, I cannot let go. While most of it is a mock letter to his 1982 self, it's the part about the NFL Network, more specifically last night's Packers/Cowboys game, that bothers me.

Did the "older you" complain about this particular slight? Actually, no. You happened to be working in New York City that day; once you discovered that your hotel room didn't offer the NFL Network, you got off your ass, met up with some friends and watched the game in a crowded sports bar that was screaming on every big play. Ironically, it turned out to be a more entertaining night than just sitting at home (or in this case, a hotel room) and watching the NFL Network. Is it a bad thing to get off your ass every once in awhile? Probably not. Everyone's incessant whining about "missing" NFL Network games made you realize that too much time was spent complaining about stupid stuff and far too little time appreciating everything that's happened for sports fans over the past 25 years. If traveling 5-10 minutes to a sports bar or a neighbor's house to watch the Packers-Cowboys game is our biggest dilemma of the sports week, then we must be in pretty good shape in 2007, right?

As with most holier-than-thou pieces, it completely misses the point of what everyone is complaining about. What most writers end up doing is that they try too hard to find the simplest, and mostly dumbest, reasoning behind popular thinking. Simmons concludes that the reason people are up in arms about the NFL Network is that they're lazy. Which is, itself, lazy.

Let's assume for a minute that most football fans are not rich sports writers who live in Los Angeles or in New York on business (which is probably a safe assumption). Then who are the fans? Most probably earn a modest income. A large amount probably have families. Let's say that 70-75% of real NFL fans fall into one of those two categories.

With the modest income group, there is one problem with going out to the bar with a bunch of friends: money. Five friends could easily only spend around $30 for their football party, assuming more than one of these people is are not alcoholics. At a bar, it could roughly be around $30 per person. Even one night a season to enjoy a game might be too much for these people (which includes college students, by the way).

The more problematic group are the ones with families. You could say that the modest income people could just go over to a friend's house, even though the reason they probably don't get the dish is because it's not available in their area. But some people simply cannot leave the house. They have kids to watch, wives to pretend to pay attention to. How many of these people could talk their wives into going to the bar to watch football on a Thursday night, let alone every Thursday night. It is, to say the least, an inconvenient circumstance.

But isn't Simmons' whole argument the amount of importance we put on inconvenience, you say? Perhaps, though I'm not sure Simmons, or anybody else for that matter, is qualified to make that statement. So, if you still side with the Sports Guy, I'd like to offer you another argument.

The politics of the NFL/Time Warner battle is what bothers me the most. Is short, The NFL took games away from the networks, then tried to sell them back to cable at a higher price than CNN, and then went on a public relations campaign about how Time Warner won't allow you to see their games. I'm guessing most of the PR people for the league have worked in Washington D.C. for some part of their lives. But with all politics, what is happening is that two companies - who make billions of dollars - are fighting over a figure that is minuscule compared to their overall income. Remember the movie "Trading Places", where the two old rich guys bet $1 to see if they could destroy/improve somebody's life? That's what's going on here. It's not about money - it's about power.

The great thing about sports, and entertainment in general, is that it's a break away from all of the corporate greed and politics of the world. Now, it determines which entertainment we get to watch. It would be one thing if we never had access to games before, like Simmons' 1982 self, and now get most of the games. But we used to get all of the good games, only to have them held hostage by the NFL for nothing more than a power struggle with another corporation. This is where the anger and confusion comes from. When things we like and pay good money for are taken away for big-money interests, people start to complain.

So maybe a simple trip to the bar or a friends house is the quick cure for our football blues. But as all quick cures do, it will only lead to a more devastating disease. After all, this is what the NFL wanted; a big-time game nobody could see, leading to the inevitable surrender of "we shouldn't be complaining". Unlike Simmons, I will not fall into this trap. To understand why you can't see the games is more important than how it affects you personally, which is itself more trite and ridiculous than not wanting to pay $4.00 for a PBR.


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