My favorite football team is the Arizona Cardinals. This strikes a lot of people as strange because, a) the Arizona Cardinals have been terrible for decades, b) I don't live anywhere near Arizona, and c) I had never even been to Arizona until about three years ago. The reason, of course, is that I'm old enough to remember cheering for the St. Louis football Cardinals, and I stuck with the team when it left for Phoenix in 1988. I can't be too angry with them for leaving. After all, I left the Midwest, too.
Because Arizona Cardinals games are rarely shown on local New York City television, and because many NYC apartments don't have access to DirecTV, I spend most Sundays during the NFL season at a sports bar. (Though a 10-month-old and pirate feeds will probably switch that up a bit this year.) Usually at a sports bar, no one wants to watch the Arizona Cardinals, so I end up hidden in the back, with the black-and-white television in the corner of the boiler room. But yesterday the Cardinals played the always-popular New England Patriots, so I bellied up to the main bar at Cody's in Brooklyn, fully expecting to be surrounded by a bunch of guys who sound like Ben Affleck's drunken, seedier older brother. This was a little nerve-racking -- Boston sports fans aren't exactly known for their warmth, graciousness and open arms to outsiders. (As is the case with pretty much every fan base on the Eastern seaboard, this native Midwesterner notes.) I just wanted to watch my cute little desert birdies get blown out by Tom Brady in peace.
As it turned out, I had little reason to worry. Not only did my Cardinals pull off a rather stunning upset, but there were only three or four Patriots fans around me, and they were all well-mannered, friendly chaps. In fact, once I looked around the bar yesterday, it became obvious that if anyone was out of step with convention, it was me: I was one of the few people there cheering for an actual professional sports team.
There were lots of people wearing jerseys, of course; I'm pretty sure people wear football jerseys on Sundays as much out of slothful weekend comfort as geographic loyalty. But their jerseys never seemed to quite match up with their rooting interests. A guy in a Joey Porter Steelers jersey was screaming for my Cardinals, the Buccaneers and the Chiefs, and he left before the Steelers game started. A guy in a Troy Brown jersey was initially watching the Pats game, but spent most of the time in the back of the bar yelling every time Cam Newton went back to pass. Several times, people saw my attention on the Pats-Cards game and asked me some variation of, "So, how many TDs does Brady have?"
The reason for all this, of course, is that the average person who goes to a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon is far more invested in his/her fantasy team and, probably more than anything else, his/her wagers over the weekend. The prevalence of gambling on the NFL -- the raw percentage of interest that the NFL inspires solely because of an ostensibly illegal activity -- is something that has long been underreported, and I think is still understated. The pure function of watching a sporting event because you hope that your favorite team wins and the other team loses, in the NFL, is often quaint, almost nostalgic. Some media outlets have gotten better at realizing this than others. I was looking at NFL.com this morning to see their takes on the weekend games.
Note the individual headlines:
Steelers hold Jets in check, pick up win
Seahawks pick apart Cowboys in win
Eagles beat Ravens in battle of the birds
Panthers knock off Saints for first win
Cardinals pull off shocking win over Patriots
Giants come from behind to earn first win!
All headlines about teams winning or losing, no names, no numbers. Now, check out ESPN's NFL page:
Pats' Hernandez injures ankle, to have MRI
'Cheap shot' angers Coughlin | Giants rally
Eagles clip Ravens despite four TOs
Roethlisberger, Steelers tame Jets
Newton, Panthers pound Saints
Jackson injured as pass attack boosts Rams
QB Smith solid as Niners cage Lions
Vinatieri gives Luck, Pagano first Colts win
Seahawks muzzle Romo, Cowboys
Fins ride Bush, Tannehill past Raiders
It's news that works for people who care about their teams and people who just want fantasy news. I look at those NFL headlines and just see nicknames beating other nicknames. I see ESPN's page and I know that Aaron Hernandez and Steven Jackson are hurt; Cam Newton, Reggie Bush and Alex Smith had big games; and there's some sort of controversy in New York. That's news I can use. If there's a team I care about, I already know if it won or not.
As for gambling, well, both the media and the NFL have worked hard to pretend it isn't a major part of their audience … while still making sure that audience has everything it might possibly need to make a wager. (I've always sort of loved that Al Michaels constantly alludes to gambling lines in his broadcasts. It's odd how acknowledging what a large section of his viewers are thinking about can be seen as somehow subversive.) That gambling lines aren't a larger part of regular coverage is more a sop to the leagues -- who, understandably, want to stay away from any formal connection to gambling -- than any sort of honest catering to viewers. It's yet another reason to miss the great Paul Zimmerman at Sports Illustrated, who was as skilled as anyone at merging "legitimate" football analysis with constant awareness of the game's more untoward, financially self-interested fan base. There's obviously a market: I've yet to hear of a 900-number advice service by a columnist, offering up one free opinion about locker-room discord, or PEDs, or his Hall of Fame ballot, as long as you stay on the line for $3.99 the first minute, $0.99 each additional minute.
I am not the target for this. I think gambling hurts sports more than it helps, and also think it's a somewhat soulless, cold way to watch a game. And as much as I obsess over my fantasy team, I love the Arizona Cardinals a lot more. But I think I'm in the minority. Sports fans are able more than ever to control exactly the news they come across, picking their sources and their interests. They're increasingly likely to ignore information that isn't specifically catered to them. Media folk ignore them in favor of "this guy's a locker room cancer" or "the Lions go for REVENGE tonight!" at their own peril.
At the end of the Arizona-New England game, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski lined up for a 42-yard field goal to win the game. (I couldn't look; after Ryan Williams' fumble, I'd smashed a shot glass into my eye socket.) When he missed it, I cheered a terrific Cardinals victory, but a guy behind me groused. "I got Gostkowski on my team," he said. "I need those points."
This column would have been a lot angrier had Gostkowski made that kick. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you're yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you're pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I'll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email, or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.