Football Fantasy Land
The NFL Network's RedZone channel reveals the future of fandom.
Football and Thanksgiving go together like turkey and stuffing. This year, the tryptophan may kick in early. The day's opening doubleheader—Packers-Lions followed by Raiders-Cowboys—promises to be a total snooze. Even the Broncos-Giants nightcap has lost much of its appeal with both teams having fallen into midseason swoons. As you're watching Thursday's terrible slate, just be thankful there will still be loads of football on Sunday—and you won't be captive to the Lions and the Raiders.
Diehard football fans have long been able to watch whatever game they wanted via DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket. Failing that, you could always go to a sports bar. But thanks to the NFL Network's RedZone Channel, you no longer have to brave civilization to see pro football in all its glory. If you have the right cable or satellite provider and you're willing to spend a few extra bucks a month, the RedZone Channel is an essential provider of ADD thrills. RedZone switches from game to game at decisive moments (usually when one team approaches the opponent's 20-yard line, hence the name) and then switches somewhere else as soon as the action dissipates. There's none of the detritus of football broadcasts—ad breaks, promos, endless replay challenges, Tony Siragusa—gumming up the works. It's just seven hours of pure pigskin bliss, without a single sighting of Jimmy Football or Jimmy Johnson.
As the early games hit the fourth quarter this past Sunday, I put down my remote and fell into the RedZone. In the span of a breathless half-hour, I watched live as Ben Roethlisberger got knocked out by the Chiefs, the Falcons drove to tie the score against the suddenly defenseless Giants, Baltimore threw an interception deep in Indianapolis territory to seal it for the unbeaten Colts, and the Giants and Chiefs drove to win overtime games. To cap it off, the Lions beat the Browns thanks to defensive pass interference on a Hail Mary and a winning touchdown pass with no time left thrown by a quarterback whose shoulder had popped out of its socket. I didn't miss a single compelling play. At times, the action was zooming by so quickly that I had to rewind my DVR to make sense of it all. And to think, some people take naps on Sunday afternoons!
While the RedZone Channel makes for thrilling television, it's pure sugar—nothing but big explosions without the foreplay. Without any of the game's natural rhythms, you won't glean any insights into why teams win or lose. RedZone is fantasy football come to life, a place where line play is an afterthought, scoring is king, and all the teams and players are jumbled together into one big pot.
I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon. The RedZone Channel's fantasy mindset is a marker of the NFL's savvy. Pro football is at the height of its popularity precisely because fans consume the game in multiple ways. I watch shows like NFL Network's Playbook to better understand the chess match between coaching staffs. I scan Web sites like Football Outsiders (full disclosure: I write for the site on occasion) and Advanced NFL Stats for next-level statistical analysis. I have Pro Football Talk for gossip and legal doings (always important as a Bengals fan), and dozens of Bengals-specific blogs when I want to revel in the minutiae of my favorite team. Someone who prefers to see the league as a cornucopia of fantasy points likely has a different set of bookmarks—and surely enjoys the games just as much as I do.
After focusing so intently on the Bengals for most of my life, the league-wide vantage point offered by RedZone Channel is a bit jarring. This is where we are as NFL consumers: We're at once infantry grunts and space commanders, full-spectrum couch potatoes able to absorb information about one team or the entire league with equal ease.
The RedZone Channel, though, has made me ponder whether the whole concept of traditional fandom is losing ground. Don't like the way your favorite team is playing? Concentrate on your fantasy squad, or whoever is playing against the Patriots, or just change the inputs on your set and replay the whole damn thing on Madden. Maybe you come back to your team the next week, maybe not. Remarkable as it might have seemed a decade ago, you don't even need to have a favorite team to be a hardcore NFL fan these days. When you can watch every game without even a TV timeout, tuning in for the entirety of a single game seems like a sucker's gambit, like returning to coach after flying business class.
Will the next generation of football fans care as deeply about the game as connections to individual teams loosen? In my formative years as a fan, being a Bengals fanatic growing up in suburban New York City meant working feverishly hard to obtain a few scraps of information. Thirty seconds of highlights, some tidbits in USA Today, and—if I was lucky—a pre-game feature on the Ickey Shuffle. That said, even the hordes of Giants and Jets fans had to make do with about 1 percent of the information available nowadays. Getting a handle on players who were not on the always-televised Cowboys, 'Niners, Bears, or Redskins was tricky—you might go two months without seeing Dan Fouts or Andre Tippett.
That last point has me convinced that the NFL has nothing to worry about. Even if the fans of 2025 aren't as loyal to their hometown teams as they are to their fantasy teams, they'll assuredly be better-informed about the sport. The fact that today's football watchers know all the players and can watch all the games is precisely what's made pro football the national pastime. So, perhaps the RedZone Channel is the first indicator that fans like me are on the wane. If that's the case, then you'll hardly hear me complain. I'll be on the couch, my eyes glazed, watching all the touchdowns whizz by.