The NFL is in the midst of an existential crisis. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “Most of the games suck eggs.”
Take today’s early afternoon lineup. Were you in a part of the country that was lucky enough see the Tennessee Titans ease past the Blake Bortles-led Jacksonville Jaguars? Or were you treated to the gourmet football feast that was the Carolina Panthers’ 9-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills? If so, you are three hours closer to death, and all you have to show for it are memories of Graham Gano kicking field goals.
The NFL’s biggest problem is one of watchability. Sure, we’re only two Sundays into the season and this is by definition a premature judgment, but if you sat through today’s Bears-Buccaneers game then you have surely joined me in jumping to this grave conclusion. Of the eight games that started at 1 p.m. ET, only the Arizona-Indianapolis contest was close. It went to overtime, but this is not a virtue; rather, this extra period acted only to prolong this shameful sin of a game.
At the end of today’s early round of matchups, there had been 24 games played in the NFL this season. By my count, only five of those could be described as competitive, in that the viewer didn’t already know who was going to win heading into the fourth quarter. Of those five, just two were contested by teams that could be described as “decent” (Chiefs vs. Patriots and Chargers vs. Broncos). At the risk of sounding like a laconic buffoon: The games are bad. And you can’t blame this on the sport itself, as college football is, for all its many faults, as entertaining as ever.
Sure, some fans will always take pleasure in watching their favorite teams destroy hapless also-rans (hello, New England; goodbye, New Orleans). There will also always be the masochistic types who insist on sitting through the cleat-end of an hours-long beatdown in their pursuit of some kind of Zen-like awakening. But for everyone else, what the NFL is selling in 2017 just isn’t good enough. If the league wants to maintain its perch as the nation’s most popular sport then it will have to cater to these casual fans. Fortunately, the NFL already thought of a way to do this: RedZone.
NFL RedZone, which the league launched in 2009, is a premium network that provides simulcast coverage each Sunday. RedZone, which switches from stadium to stadium to capture the best action at any given moment, is essentially a collage of the day's most exciting events: football without the filler. While it started as a sort-of gimmick for fantasy football enthusiasts with short attention spans, it has become the only way to watch the league without losing your mind.
League-wide ratings are slipping, but there hasn’t been a general consensus as to why. Some have blamed anthem protests, an assertion that, thanks to a misreading of a widely published poll, became heralded as fact when it was anything but. RedZone has also been singled out for cannibalizing the market for individual games, but the league could never admit this is the case. That's because, in doing so, they'd have to concede that a single NFL game must be packaged with at least seven other NFL games to make it anything close to watchable.
This ties the NFL in a pretzel. The commercial-free RedZone channel may help retain fans, but if it's the only thing propping up a dreadful league, then the fumbles and interceptions are going to come home to roost sooner rather than later. Until then, I'll be consuming my Sunday afternoon football via RedZone and RedZone alone. And on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday nights, I'll endure select NFL broadcasts in a manner no man ever should: one game at a time, with commercials, and lots and lots of field goals.