The following is all speculative conjecture—half-baked perceptions and incomplete research. I am probably wrong about all of it. At least, I hope I am.
Think: when was the last time the NFL did not get its ‘happy ending’? When has the most viable media-friendly storyline not played-out to its most profit-maximizing conclusion?
We have all heard about conspiracy theories and game-fixing assertions from disgruntled fans who were upset about outcomes or who lost bets on some bad beats that came down to controversial calls. It is speculated by many, for example, that Super Bowl III was fixed to legitimize the league merger. It is well documented that the NFL is legally considered entertainment rather than sport. Fixing a sporting event for entertainment purposes is technically legal.
Observe recent history. Let's take it back to 1999/2000, shall we? The ‘happiest’ ending and most profitable or greatest perceived storyline is typically easy to spot.
Super Bowl XXXIV
What makes a better storyline than Kurt Warner and the forming of the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’? Everyone likes a feel-good story of grocery clerk-turned-Super Bowl hero. This one just had to be resolved the ‘right’ way—with the ‘good guys’ winning in the end by half a yard. Granted, McNair and company were no media slouches. But the Rams story was too good to not fulfill.
Super Bowl XXXV
This one was a great way for Modell to ‘go out’. Ravens and former Browns owner Art Modell was once NFL President and always had a heavy media influence. He is credited with helping negotiate lucrative NFL television contracts. The record of his football team, however, was lackluster following the key and controversial decision to fire Paul Brown in 1963. The team won the championship in ‘64, but only with Brown’s influence still stamped all over the team. Since then the team had never returned to past glory and Modell created further controversy when he moved the team to Baltimore. After the 2000 season, Modell was ready to essentially retire and hand the reigns to his son. The Ravens’ win was a great way to bring final vindication to an influential man with a storied and controversial league history just before he retired.
Super Bowl XXXVI
What more needs to be said about this one? 9/11. Patriots. Underdogs, etc. Tuck rule. You’ve heard it all before. This one could not have been written any better. Although, Marshall Faulk might disagree.
Super Bowl XXXVII
Jon Gruden was the overwhelming storyline leading up to this game. It was dubbed by many as the ‘Gruden Bowl’. What a neat idea: the coach gets traded and winds up playing against his former team in the Super Bowl the very next year. Who is the genius who comes up with this stuff? Who better to win the Gruden Bowl than Jon Gruden? Jerry Rice and Tim Brown certainly thought something was amiss.
Super Bowl XXXVIII
Let’s see, how should we do it this year fellas? Ok, so we’ve now got Tom Brady, our All-American Hollywood hero. There is also Robert Kraft, among the NFL’s most influential owners and a man who sits on numerous influential NFL committees, as well as on the board of directors of the CBS affiliate, Viacom. Not to mention, there was a rather unpopular war going on at the time that could use another dose of the Patriots…
Super Bowl XXXIV
A dynasty is a great storyline.
Super Bowl XL
Jerome Bettis is a great guy, isn’t he? Sure he is. Who doesn’t like ‘The Bus’? I’m sure that when he was a guest on NFL Today pregame shows etc his popularity was testing off the charts. This is the kind of guy who gets offered media deals once he even breathes a word about retiring. The same goes for Bill Cowher, who of course to this day is a CBS staple. This year was all about giving these guys their ‘due’. Send them off into the sunset and give them the happy ending everyone wants to see. Those who play along with the ‘media way’ will get their happy ending every time.
Super Bowl XLI
Following along with our story, who is left here? We did the Dynasty thing, Bettis/Cowher got what they deserved, we’ve had some feel good stories. We’ve given heavyweight owners what they wanted. Where should the narrative take us now? Of course, it is now time for Manning/Dungy. These are great guys. Wow, do we ever love them. Who makes more money for the NFL than Peyton Manning? It just feels right. What a great time to play this episode.
Super Bowl XLII
There is a lot more interesting stuff to get from this Patriots dynasty thing. They’ve now got their championships. Time to shake things up a bit. And to be honest, they really don’t play very nice with the media. Bill Belichick is a notorious media subversion expert. From injury reports to tight-lipped and sarcastic press conferences, he will not give an inch. Then there is the addition of Randy Moss. What is his relationship to the NFL and to the media? Decidedly negative. Throw in ‘Spygate’, which surfaced yet again during Super Bowl week. A complex storyline was emerging. While the Patriots were an indisputable powerhouse and their undefeated season was an indisputable profit masterpiece, they were no longer the ‘good guys’. Certainly not on the level of a Manning, let alone a categorically underdog Manning. And thus the greatest David versus Goliath story in sports history was born. In the end, the big bad giant was slain (by the Giants). Perfect.
Super Bowl XLIII
You really couldn’t go wrong with this one. Good guys—media darlings on both sides. A Steeler’s win is always a sure windfall. Such had been proven a few times over. Then you’ve got Kurt Warner making an improbable run on the other side. Let’s keep it close and see what happens…
Super Bowl XLIV
Here is yet another feel-good story that just had to be told. The victorious Saints symbolize the rebuilding of their city and stadium four years after Katrina. After the game, Super Bowl MVP quarterback Drew Brees said it best: “We just all looked at one another and said, 'We are going to rebuild together. We are going to lean on each other.' This is the culmination in all that belief.”
Super Bowl XLV
Once the ‘Katrina Culmination’ story was complete, it was time to tell the Aaron Rodgers story. It would be the next chapter for a storied and revered franchise. It would involve a dream match-up—two widely beloved franchises, the Steelers and Packers. But the Steelers cast already had their tale told a couple years back. It was a wonderful success. The stage was now set for the solidification of the new Packers era.
Super Bowl XLVI
By this time, the Patriots are a very polarizing team. People either love them or love to hate them. Either way, they make for great television, great storylines, and for a lot of people tuning-in. The Boston-New York rivalry draws fans. Patriots-Giants mirrors the Red Sox-Yankees. Outside of Massachusetts, the majority sentiment towards Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots is Schadenfreude—the joy in seeing them fall. Brady is perceived to lead the ‘charmed’ life while failing to connect with the masses. Belichick’s personality resonates with a very small minority. They are the perfect villains that must lose in the end.
Super Bowl XLVII
In the first of the two weeks leading up to this year’s Super Bowl, it was impossible to turn on the NFL Network without seeing it plastered with Ray Lewis’ face and headlines. It was a constant stream of images of him crying, dancing, getting up in people’s faces, yelling, thumping his chest, calling out to the heavens, etc. The camera loves Ray for providing such footage. So much so that the media will downplay at every turn his PED use, past murder affiliations, and other less-than laudable details from his personal life. Boy would it ever be great for him to win another championship before he retires. He could do it for ol’ Art, who passed away earlier in the season.
After media day, Ray Lewis still gets plenty of play, as do the Harbaughs. Randy Moss finally made headlines by declaring himself the greatest receiver of all time. The statements have been met mostly with backlash and negativity. Moss will be eternally destined as the tragic figure who never got his happy ending because he didn’t ‘play nice’. This is what happens when you don’t ‘follow the rules’: your talent goes to waste. Let this be a lesson for all. I believe the Ravens will win the ‘Harbaugh Bowl’. I can’t imagine the 49ers giving the NFL and the media their best possible ending. The only chance they have is the Kaepernick storyline. But it certainly hasn’t gotten the same level of attention as Ray Lewis.
I hope I am wrong.
The NFL seems to play out like a Hollywood movie where the ‘good guy’ always wins in the end. For this reason, my heart is with the personalities and the talent I respect. But from now on, my money’s on the media.