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If you close your eyes and picture an NFL game in your head, those pictures will likely arrive from a dozen familiar angles, framed by a television. Professional football—even in our daydreams now—is always mediated by network cameras.
Seventy-three years after NBC first put pro football on TV—the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the Philadelphia Eagles at Ebbets Field—NFL football is TV's most popular programming. Nine of the 10 highest-rated shows in 2011 were NFL games (or shows about the NFL), the Super Bowl is annually the most-viewed program in America, and the league provides the cast for three of the longest running series in history. (NFL on CBS, NFL Films Presents and Monday Night Football have each aired more or less continuously for 40 years and counting.) The only other genres to endure so long (mostly network news, soap operas and talk shows) have all long passed their peaks of popularity, while pro football's sell-by date is, at the very minimum, still a decade distant.
That's because the NFL will get nearly $28 billion in broadcast rights from 2014 through '22, an astonishing fee that might yet prove a bargain. On its first day of sale last week, Madden NFL 13—a video game shot in the television idiom, designed to play on television screens—sold 900,000 copies. All of those buyers aren't pretending to play football. They're pretending to play a highly stylized game we now think of as football, a crane-shot, cable-cammed, dish-miked spectacle: As Seen on TV.
The football most of us no longer recognize—if we ever recognized it at all—is the game viewed in person, the only lens between you and the action a pair of binoculars or beer goggles.
As TV ratings flourish, attendance at NFL games has decreased every year for the last four seasons. To be fair, the league set an attendance record in 2007, after which the nation's economy collapsed. But those four years have also seen the nesting home viewer become ever more entrenched, entitled, inert. NFL Sunday Ticket delivers every out-of-market league game to your couch, and the Red Zone Channel, which debuted on DirecTV in '05, screens every league play when an offense advances inside its opponent's 20-yard line. From his leather recliner, the stay-at-home spectator can summon highlights with a swipe of his tablet, update his fantasy team at a keystroke, relieve (and refill) his bladder with minimal effort or expense.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is eminently aware of all this. "We have made the point repeatedly that the experience at home is outstanding," he said at the owners' meeting in May. "And we have to compete with that in some fashion by making sure we create the same kind of environment in our stadiums and use the same kind of technology."
That technology will be difficult to replicate, as it includes high-def and 3-D, first-down lines superimposed on the field and super-slow-motion replays. When NBC aired that first game from Brooklyn on Oct. 22, 1939, the network fed pictures to 500 local set owners with two cameras, 38 fewer than it used to broadcast last February's Super Bowl to an audience of 111 million.
The two teams in that game, the Giants and the Patriots, had already played each other in Week 9 of last season, in Foxborough. I watched that game from a corner-of-the-end-zone seat at Gillette Stadium, my view impeded by the guy in front of me, who stood impassively for much of the game, scarecrow-style. Men in OCHOCINCO jerseys got Ocho-stinko on $8 beers. Even the sober among us were occasionally unable to follow the game action and looked for guidance to the down-and-distance readings on the scoreboard. It was like following the progress of a baseball game via ticker tape circa 1922. On disputed plays the most desperate phoned home from their seats to ask what was going on.
But the NFL needs this studio audience to provide the home viewer with ambient sound—a sitcom-laugh track of roars and boos—and to serve as human set dressing: 60,000 seat-fillers. Unless enough people pay handsomely for the privilege of attending, the rest of us are punished by the frightening specter of TV blackouts.
For that reason, especially, and that reason only, we commend to you and all your friends the benefits of live attendance. Tailgating is still better in a parking lot than in a driveway. The stadium men's room line continues to serve as a roundtable of scintillating banter. It remains prohibitively expensive to organize a pregame Navy flyover of your living room.