The NFL season never actually ends. At least, this is what ESPN believes. In Bristol, the NFL year is a continuous strand of fabric to be stretched beyond its physical properties, the limitations of which have yet to be discovered. This is the philosophy which brings us months of draft speculation masquerading as expertise and, Wednesday night, a two-hour schedule release program.
In an effort to generate as much slack from the definition of "entertainment" as possible, four men -- Trey Wingo, Tim Hasselbeck, Jerome Bettis, and current Redskins safety Ryan Clark -- gathered around a desk to share their thoughts on the 2014 NFL schedule, despite the draft yet to occur and opening kickoff more than four months away.
Just as a football game features a mere 11 minutes of actual gameplay, the way the NFL is covered features a comparable ratio of actual insight. Much of it falls under the Men Talking genre of television, a close relative to CNN's Flight 370 coverage; rather than debating cockamamie theories about missing planes, they pontificate about eliteness and hustle, or even topics their own programming admits don't matter. During the schedule release show, Ryan Clark, Jerome Bettis, Pete Carroll and NaVorro Bowman (the latter two appeared briefly for interviews) all confessed they don't pay much, if any, attention to the schedule, and especially not in April. That is, ESPN aired a program about a topic to talk about how unimportant that topic is.
The concept behind this special program is the same that yields debate shows like Pardon The Interruption, First Take, and perhaps most relevant, Around The Horn. True, Around The Horn is one of the more watchable offerings -- Tony Reali has a discernible personality aside from "loud" -- but the show encapsulates the ESPN ethos like no other. "Points" are meaningless, yet awarded to whichever panelist speaks words. The opinions don't have to be backed up, there doesn't have to be evidence, and it certainly doesn't have to make sense, but it better be said with conviction. To that end, during the schedule release show, Tim Hasselbeck predicted team records, game by game, throughout the broadcast. Consider that for a second: Tim Hasselbeck was predicting games between teams whose rosters we don't even know. We don't know who will be on the field, yet Hasselbeck was predicting who will win, the ultimate exercise in saying things for the sake of noise.
But, this is why ESPN pays billions for NFL rights: the permission to make this noise year-round. They derive much more than 16 nights of revenue, inventing "events" like the schedule release, pro days or, going back to 1980, the draft itself, which for much of its history went virtually uncovered by the national press. They even invent stories, as Deadspin has chronicled, getting a Talking Man (often Ron Jaworski or Merril Hoge) to say something controversial, which other outlets report, and then cycle it back to their own programs for further debate. It's all a quest for content, and people talking is much cheaper than sports.
Speaking of actual sports, there was some Wednesday night. Not only was there baseball -- I, for one, could forgive you for not wanting to watch mid-April baseball -- but playoff sports, three NBA games and three NHL games. The idea that anyone who calls themselves a sports fan might choose a schedule release (which, by the way, was released online before the broadcast even aired) over actual, real, important sports boggles the mind.
I mean, it's April, baseball is on, NHL and NBA are in the playoffs, and y'all are out here tweeting about the NFL *schedule* release.— Travis Waldron (@Travis_Waldron) April 24, 2014
Perhaps ESPN made an event out of this because, more than anything else, they could. This, along with many other reasons, is why Mark Cuban's assertion that the NFL can oversaturate the market is laughable. The NFL can get attention for releasing it's schedule while other sports hold playoff games. To illustrate just how effortlessly the NFL dominates the sporting landscape: Google News search results for "NFL schedule release": 1.86 million. For "NHL playoffs": 1.78 million. (As of early Wednesday night.) Here were the trending topics on Twitter at 9:39 PM Eastern, more than an hour and a half after the schedule was released:
It's not as if there's a Selection Show-esque suspense, revealing opponents or seeding. We have known for months each team's opponents, just not the order in which they will play. It's fundamentally impossible to overstate what a non-event this was, and yet, it competed with the NHL playoffs in terms of news coverage and the NBA playoffs in Twitter volume.
Real power is not exhibited by what can be accomplished with sweat, but by what can be done without the slightest exertion. The NFL has tried very hard to dominate the ratings and create an on-field product people seek. But forming a schedule is a logistics exercise. It's not an event. It never was before. Yet the NFL has gotten so big, so mighty, so demanded, that even the league's administrative processes have become newsworthy. It's not even trying anymore, but it's still working. This is the behemoth the NFL has become, with which all other sports must reckon, and ESPN is only so happy to make a network out of it.