Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, a sports-talk radio host on Sirius/XM satellite radio (and formerly half of the best and most popular show of its kind, the Mike and the Mad Dog Show on WFAN in New York) recently opened his program not by recapping the dramatic action from pro or college football over the weekend, but by complaining at length about what a drag it was to actually attend the Giants-Broncos game (you know, the “Manning Bowl,” won as usual by big brother Peyton).
The problem the NFL faces with its in-game presentation is hardly a new one. Most sentient fans who don’t prefer body painting in team colors or double-digit blood-alcohol levels realize the league is much better consumed from your couch. This appeared to be news to Russo, who suddenly seemed to discover the endless TV timeouts, soul-crushing traffic jams, and hideously expensive add-ons that make going to games barely worth the adrenaline rush when your team makes a big play.
Still, it got me to thinking about the way the league is covered. Currently, most media outlets do what they have pretty much always done: send a writer, perhaps two, to a given football game, which he or she watches from the press box. After the gun, the reporter hits the mandatory press conferences and the locker room, rounds up a few banal quotes, maybe even a pungent one or two, tosses in some stats and rounds up the scoring and key plays, and that’s about it.
The beat writer is valuable during the week, ferreting out the inside dope only available from the team complex, but on game day, he or she is mostly superfluous, save for the post-game quotes, which are available on team websites and local post-game shows anyway.
Which is why it is high time for the media to follow the fan’s lead, and cover the games for what they truly are: a television spectacle, better covered the way virtually everyone experiences them—from the couch, not the press box.
Any reporter will tell you that covering football in person is hardly an ideal way to know what is going on. The most common sight in press boxes across the league is rows of reporters turning in unison to crane to see important replays. In other words, much of the commentary from those on the scene is already informed by the telecasts of games. Why not simply take the next step?
Back in the good ol’ days, long before television and even radio, sporting events were covered like theater; indeed, many sportswriters of yore got their start as drama critics. Sports coverage wasn’t much of a leap. Since their readership had no access to the visuals, the reporters were more interested in the spectacle and the conflict on display, rather than dry stats and play by play, and wrote their articles accordingly. Hence the golden age of purple prose.
Now of course, the drama and the televised spectacle are everything, and the actual scene at the arena is captured better for the fan at home than the one spending 15 minutes on line for the lavatory in the stadium. Take recent images from the last couple of NFL Sundays. Robert Griffin III’s over-the-top entrance for his first game back after injury. Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy arguing on the sideline. Tom Brady channeling his inner toddler after his receivers let him down by sucking.
All made for the TV cameras. We need a writer expressly devoted to the opera, not just the seven-yard gains.
Such coverage would be separate from pure criticism of the broadcast, though that would be inevitable, and one reason why this idea probably will never be embraced by the likes of ESPN, whose writers would be forced to come down on their broadcast brethren, or worse, themselves. But the game coverage is generally devoid of the shared gestalt of the 99%, who take in the games over Sunday Ticket and Red Zone Channel, and via the prism of fantasy football. Today’s fan is all over the place, and writing about the sport should reflect this changed world.
Writing from the couch is a large reason Bill Simmons of ESPN/Grantland got so popular. One way for print coverage to regain some relevance would be to tailor its output to the way potential readers consume the league.
NBC Sports Channel signed ESPN’s Michelle Beadle to great fanfare last year. Last Wednesday, her cable show, The Crossover, was cancelled after low ratings, internal dissension, and virtually zero impact on the national sports scene. As noted in this space, leaving ESPN sounds great for many reasons, including money. But with rare exceptions, departing talent finds the grass isn’t always greener. Beadle is an enormously likable on-air presence, and she will have impact elsewhere at the Peacock. But she’s learned the lesson so many others have before her: The Bristol Boys have the biggest microphone.
Meanwhile, Beadle responded the only way that made sense—by imbibing.Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: Chris 'Mad Dog' Russo, ESPN, NFL, television