After a season in which ratings took a dip, it appears the NFL is more open than ever to making major changes to television broadcasts. They’ve done studies you know, and it seems viewers have been quicker to bail on NFL games of late, possibly because of the slow pace and because there are, like, 8,504 other things to consume on TV, online and sometimes even in real life.
The league and its broadcast partners will soon be rolling out a plan to speed up the pace of play. Commissioner Roger Goodell said so in a refreshing and promising letter to fans this week. But as Pro Football Talk pointed out, Goodell also hinted in that letter that broader changes — beyond those pertaining specifically to pace — could be coming to game broadcasts.
That got me thinking about what I’d like to see happen. So I made a short list.
1. Fewer commercial breaks
Yeah, I know.
It’s obvious, but I can’t stress enough how much the product — and resultant viewership numbers — would improve with fewer breaks.
You might have been able to get away with going to break twice in a two-minute span after a touchdown back when your biggest Sunday afternoon entertainment competition was a Magnum P.I. marathon on USA Network, but times have changed. We live in a world owned by commercial-crushing DVR boxes equipped with anti-commercial On Demand features; a world in which streaming is cooler than Ryan Reynolds; a world in which Netflix is more popular than bacon.
I have a 4-year-old at home, and I swear to god she doesn’t know what a commercial is. And she’s not an idiot, either. At least in 4-year-old terms. She can count to 100. Yes, technically that should mean being able to count to at least 199 since counting beyond 100 only requires starting again but remembering to say “One hundred and” before every number, but still — 100! And she’s into all of those shows with bright colors in which — curiously — everything is able to talk except the humans, but she watches all of that shit online or on demand. She ain’t got no time for that, despite the fact she often has literally nothing to do for days on end.
I’m paid to watch football, but there are still times when a team scores a touchdown and I consider making a run to the grocery store attached to the building I live in because I can’t stand the thought of having to sit through, like, four consecutive minutes of commercials. Doesn’t even matter if I need groceries. Sometimes, I totally forget what I was watching. I’ll be sitting there scrolling through some useless Buzzfeed listicle that I only clicked on because there was a hot girl in the thumbnail, all while ads for shitty beer play on my TV in the background, and then I’ll hear Sean McDonough’s voice and remember that the Eagles are playing the Packers. Someone scored, right? It’s been nearly five minutes and I lost my short-term memory and attention span in, like, 2005, so I have to rely on Twitter to catch me up on what took place before the latest double-break from hell. They need to start coming back from those things like a hit TV show. “Previously on Eagles-Packers…”
And Goodell knows it. “It drives me crazy,” he told USA Today on Wednesday. “We call those ‘double-ups.’ They actually occurred 27 percent of the time (on kickoffs last season). And that’s still too high for us.”
But even if the league is able to reduce that “double-up” percentage to zero, it shouldn’t stop cutting there. Halftime is too long and there are too many breaks after possession changes. I know the NFL wouldn’t think of making major changes that would cost the league money, but I’ll gladly live with ads on jerseys if it means fewer commercials. I know purists won’t like that, but it’s the lesser of two evils. And let’s be real. Is a 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Antonio Brown going to be any less entertaining because Brown scored while wearing a uniform with Papa John’s face on it? You’d be over it in no time, especially if it meant Pittsburgh’s opponent would take the field in 30 seconds rather than 300.
2. Centralized replay
Goodell also touched on this in his letter, noting that “next week clubs will vote on a change to centralize replay reviews. Instead of a fixed sideline monitor, we will bring a tablet to the Referee who can review the play in consultation with our officiating headquarters in New York, which has the final decision. This should improve consistency and accuracy of decisions and help speed up the process.”
Cool, but again, sort of a half-measure. Why not just let the folks in New York take advantage of the fact they have a better perspective and more angles by having them fully conduct replay reviews? If a play is challenged or a review is initiated by the folks in New York, the referee’s job should be to blow the whistle and let the teams huddle up while the experts at the officiating headquarters quickly render a decision. Having the ref stroll over to the sideline and grab a wannabe iPad only prolongs and complicates what should be a straightforward process.
3. More nerds in the booth
I appreciate that Troy Aikman played the game. I really do. And sometimes former players do indeed offer insight that you simply can’t get from those who never suited up in the NFL. But I’ve found that those times are rare, especially because the game has changed so much since the time so many of today’s color guys played. To boot, few strike me as over-prepared grinders, and fewer have a firm grasp on advanced stats, regular stats or numbers in general.
Why do viewers often hate play-by-play and color guys? I think in some cases it’s because broadcasters are relatively impartial and idiot fans foolishly perceive impartiality as bias in favor of their team’s opponent. But I think that antipathy also has to do with the fact fans can’t relate to guys like Aikman, Phil Simms and other rich former athletes who don’t know a thing about fantasy football, daily fantasy or the analytics often used to break down sports in those environments.
I’d much rather watch a game with somebody from Pro Football Focus or Football Outsiders in the booth. Somebody with the ability to provide statistical context on the fly. Give me somebody who can crunch numbers and put them into context between plays. Those guys exist, but they aren’t famous. Hopefully, the NFL will one day realize that people don’t care if the guy providing instant analysis on a broadcast is a celebrity. Hopefully, one day, viewers will instead have a chance to consume high-quality analysis from smart but relatively anonymous football people, rather than the incoherent drivel that dominates broadcasts today.