Sunday was one of the coldest, nastiest weather days in recent U.S. history. Michigan -- a state that knows cold -- had its most frigid day in 20 years. Nashville and Memphis -- two cities that don't -- canceled all their flights in and out of town. The National Weather Service called conditions in Minneapolis, which had wind chills nearing 60 below, "historic and dangerous." Even in Athens, Ga., where I live, temperatures were expected hit single digits. In Georgia.
No matter where you were, though, we could all agree: We were all glad we weren't at Lambeau Field.
The official attendance was listed at 77,525, and while I have no doubt that is true, I can guarantee you an extreme few of them had a good time. (And that was even before the Packers lost.) Even the winning coach looked like he was nearing death after the game.
It is has always been cold in Green Bay, and sometimes, it has even been this cold. But never before has the decision of 77,000-plus Wisconsinites seemed so inherently insane. Every time I looked at FOX on Sunday, watching an otherwise thrilling NFC wild-card game, I thought the same thing: Thank God I'm not there. No rational person could feel otherwise.
It's not just about the cold, either. This is a bigger change than perhaps we have understood.
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It is difficult to argue that the two biggest sports in the U.S. right now are anything other than the NFL and college football. The NBA is the hippest, soccer is the most global and baseball is making tons of money and is arguably watched by more people than any time in world history. But in the U.S., football rules. In 2012, a regular-season Giants-49ers game shown to only two-thirds of the country got higher ratings than every World Series game and every NBA Finals game. The Cotton Bowl (on Fox), a non-BCS, unimportant game between two Midwestern schools in cities you've never been to, a game that was opposite Ohio State-Clemson in the Orange Bowl (on ESPN), was the highest-rated show on network television last Friday. Last year's Super Bowl just missed becoming the most-watched television program of all time and ended up stuck in third, behind the 2012 Super Bowl and the 2011 one. Football faces so many existential threats, has so many public relations problems, could be in legitimate societal danger over the next few decades … but people are watching the sports like crazy right now. They're almost unimaginably popular.
Except: People are starting to not attend the games. The NFL claims their games are sellouts but no one believes them; by the fourth quarter of several regular-season games this year, the stands were often half-full, at best. (In overtime of the Cardinals-Titans game last month, I'm pretty sure when Jay Feely kicked the game-winning field goal, you could hear an echo.) College football is having even more of a problem, particularly with students. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out this fall, even the mighty SEC is having trouble filling its stands as students find better ways to spend their Saturdays, often in front of a television and behind their phones. The NFL once used the threat of blackouts to get people to head to the stadium, but even though they talk real tough, there's little reason to take the threat seriously; the league didn't have a playoff blackout this year, even though the thousands of empty seats were obvious. The attendance numbers themselves are a smokescreen. The trend is evident: Going to the games is starting to seem beside the point.
There are many reasons for this, most of them apparent: Games are too expensive to attend, it's often cold, the beer is lousy and overpriced, football games have a dramatically higher lout-to-normal-human ratio than any other sport (and perhaps any other recreational activity, with the possible exception of a Wall Street bachelor party). But the main reason, clearly, is television. Put aside expense, or possible proximity to this person. Football is a sport that is more fun to watch on television than it is in person, and I'm not even sure it's all that close.
We are a world now that looks more at screens than at real life, and we're going to get worse about it. (This is honestly one of the main reasons I can't go to concerts anymore. ) Unless I'm: a) an intense football strategist obsessed with formations and blitz patterns; b) able to understand the All 22 view without replays; and c) in a blimp, there is nothing I can see in person at a game that I can't see better on television. Never mind the endless sitting around waiting for television to come back from commercial, which is what you spend the vast majority of your time at a football game actually doing. That might be the worst part of it. Football-- both the NFL and college football -- has given itself over so completely to television that attending the games makes you feel like a chump. ESPN creates pointless bowl games purely to fill television time; the people in the stands exist solely for reaction shots and because someone has to show up on the kiss cam. The crowd is beside the point. The crowd is there only because it would feel weird if a game were played in front of an empty gym. It might not be so strange someday. After all, the crowd is just the studio audience -- the laugh track.
This isn't much of a problem now; with all the television money going around (thanks to a collapsing television industry now reliant on such live, non-DVRable programming), football can keep going on like this as long as cable fees exist and cord cutters don't dominate. But these stories about potential blackouts and non-playoff sellouts are just the beginning. The leagues and the networks have been marching forward, raking in the cash, by not particularly caring whether fans are in the stands or not. Fans are starting to take them up on it. Who can blame them? With all this, who in the world wants to actually be there? That's what the cameras are for. Someday they might just play these games in warehouses, or on sound stages. The fans at home won't mind. The question is: Will the leagues?
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