Ten years ago, we got our pro football news from pretty straightforward sources. A blogger named Mike in West Virginia reported trades and rumors. A New Jersey über-scrivener sipped craft beers as he cruised on his endless road trip. There was a Fox play-by-play man named Joe who was claiming his birthright. An ex-quarterback named Terry who was laughing and laughing until we just wanted to scream, “Terry, what is the joke?”
Soon, things began to change. We received emails with news items written by entities called “DallasCowboys.com staff writers.” On November 4, 2003, at just after 8 p.m. on the East Coast, another key event took place. A balding ex-SportsCenter anchor appeared on television and said, “Your dreams have indeed come true.” Our dreams? Perhaps. But in this case, our dreams dovetailed with a sports league’s. The NFL had its own TV network.
Last month, the NFL Network turned 10. Before we go further, it’s worth noting that these armies of self-covering, semi-autonomous sports journalists — on the MLB and NHL Networks, NBA TV, and a bunch of league and team websites in between — are unprecedented in the history of sports, and probably American life. Understanding the role of the NFL Network almost requires two brains: Journalist Brain and Fan Brain. We’ll start with Fan Brain. Then we’ll let the two brains duke it out.
Eric Weinberger, executive producer of the NFL Network, likes to use the word “eventize.” To eventize is to make sports into a television show. This has been the NFL Network’s creed since day one.
When the NFL Network began, it consisted of one daily live show, Total Access, and the vast library of NFL Films, which filled most of the broadcast day. Almost no one could watch the network. It started in fewer than 12 million homes; the Murdoch-backed Speed Channel was in 58 million. “We were better distributed in London than my hometown of New York City for a better part of a decade,” said Rich Eisen, the network’s lead anchor.
Cable operators balked at carrying the NFL Network. What is it? they asked. The NFL didn’t quite know. The channel didn’t have games. It was pitched as a football-loving cousin of the broadcast networks that paid millions to show NFL games. At first, the NFL Network didn’t even go on the air live on Sundays, for fear of interfering with the league’s partners.
The NFL Network’s president is Steve Bornstein, an early producer at (and later president of) ESPN. Like the embryonic version of ESPN, the NFL Network looked for the unclaimed baggage of the sports world. In 2004, the network went to the draft combine. The combine is a bunch of college prospects trying to bench 225 pounds and football writers flexing their expense accounts. Nobody cared about the combine. “We were basically blown away by the content,” said Weinberger. “It was like, ‘I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.'”
The combine is now eventized, with 60 hours’ worth of live coverage. So is the NFL’s “release” of the fall schedule in April. And the announcement of the host of the next (a.k.a. four years hence) Super Bowl. In June 2006, producers noticed that Ben Roethlisberger’s motorcycle crash provided continuous filler during the offseason. “Obviously Chris Mortensen was already working, he was already alive and well,” Weinberger said. “But we do think with our 24-hour football coverage we helped create this need for news and the need for getting the news out there.”
During the season, the network eventized the stuff between games. “When [Bill] Parcells was coaching the Cowboys,” Weinberger said, “one of the ways we kept growing was every Wednesday, when he spoke, we just cut live to it. It was just an hour of unbelievable drama live.” The network always has a go-to press-conference coach: Parcells, Jon Gruden, now Rex Ryan. Before Weinberger and I spoke, the NFL Network had cut live to Mike Tomlin as he talked about stepping onto the field against the Ravens.
The RedZone channel — truly the most mind-blowing TV invention of the last 10 years — eventized every Cecil Shorts touchdown. The network hired Mike Mayock, an analyst who thrives on minutiae — who’s capable of taking small things and making them seem important.
In 2006, the league awarded Thursday- and Saturday-night games — real football — to the NFL Network. That may have put the channel on the path to finally breaking down the walls of Time Warner. But the DNA had already long been implanted.
When the network launched, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Mike Pereira, the NFL’s director of officiating, will appear each Monday night to discuss the rules of the game.” We might have chuckled. Now, Pereira has a gig on Fox, where he makes every blown call into its own mini-drama. Former ref Gerry Austin does the same for ESPN. The NFL Network has replaced Pereira with Dean Blandino, the new vice-president of officiating. This is how we watch football. Everything has been eventized.
Journalist Brain here. Isn’t this Pravda?
If you eventize every Mike Tomlin press conference and the 40 times at the rookie combine, they accrue as ads for the NFL. “People ask about the mouthpiece thing all the time,” Weinberger said. “Yes, of course, we’re here to talk about the NFL. We are here, no doubt, to celebrate the NFL.”
But as Weinberger has pointed out, celebrating isn’t unique to the NFL Network. Any network that buys broadcast rights becomes a celebrator, too. Fox and CBS and ESPN and NBC all have a stake in getting more people to watch pro football.
A reporter from one of those networks may mimic the old Bobby Heenan line “I’m a broadcast journalist!” They’re not wrong. But at some deep level, the promotion of the NFL is a collective task among networks. As the NFL would say, together we make football.
If we can get over our squeamishness about the NFL Network, it’s because of Eisen. When Eisen left ESPN in 2003, he’d emerged as one of the best of the new wave of SportsCenter anchors. He favored the pregnant pause over the shout. He realized that archness — Dan Patrick’s and Keith Olbermann’s stock in trade — was more lethal than the catchphrase. If the frenetic metabolism of the NFL Network belongs to Roger Goodell, then its breezy tone belongs to Eisen. “He comes across as erudite in a way that isn’t off-putting,” said ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt.
“I want a douche-free broadcast,” Eisen said.
Back when Dan and Keith were SportsCenter anchors, they were actually delivering the news. Eisen’s peers — Van Pelt, Stuart Scott — had a different challenge. For one thing, they were birthed on a hyper-ironic plane, playing Stephen Colbert to Dan and Keith’s Jon Stewart. For another, they were being scooped by Internet highlights and even ESPN’s own crawl. “I might have been one of the first SportsCenter anchors,” Eisen said, “that complained that I wrote this great lead-in setting up a highlight, and that as I’m doing it, on camera, the final score is scrolling underneath my head.”
Perhaps because of this, Eisen is intensely aware of the indictments of sports TV, such as the fake laughs on NFL pregame shows. “Whenever we’re accused of doing forced laughter, it’s misguided,” Eisen said before I could ask the question. “We’re genuinely friends and poke each other with kindness in mind. But that’s what friends do.”
Eisen and Goodell are friends, too. Every time Eisen sees Goodell, he greets him with a bear hug. In his book, Total Access, Eisen wrote that Goodell “is, quite simply, the man.” But Eisen said the friendship formed not because Goodell was his boss — or, not just because he was his boss. It was because of the latitude Goodell had allowed him.
In fact, Goodell has been cultivating Eisen for a decade. In summer 2003, when Goodell was still chief operating officer of the NFL, he invited Eisen for a round of golf. On the 12th hole, Goodell told Eisen that he wanted him to be the same anchor that had come of age on SportsCenter. Eisen could say what he wanted. During the 2011 NFL lockout, Goodell emailed Eisen, unbidden, to say he was free to ask the commish any question on air. “We wanted to keep the credibility of the shield,” Weinberger said. “It’s why Rich was such a great fit from the start. It was like, this is a credible journalist.”
Here you see why Fan Brain begins to win out. We like Eisen. We trust Eisen. This can’t be all bad, right?
“Are we going to do our own League of Denial?” Eisen said. “Of course not. [But] what gets me sometimes to this day is the idea that we’re a house organ or the NFL’s network. Yes, we are owned by them. But we are a separate entity in terms of breaking stories and finding out what’s happening for fans who watch us.”
“Everybody is owned by somebody. It’s like the scene from the end of Network, when Ned Beatty brought in Peter Finch and said there are no countries anymore, there are only corporations, and that he is messing with nature by talking about the company that owns the network. That’s essentially what goes on in this age. Everybody has a corporate structure.”
Journalist Brain here again. What I see a lot of on the NFL Network — what I like — is the reporting.
The NFL Network has become an Alien egg incubator for NFL insiders. Adam Schefter, of the Denver Post, was the network’s original insider. Schefter left for ESPN in 2009. He was replaced by Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post. La Canfora left for CBS in 2012. Undaunted, the network hired the New York Times‘s Judy Battista and Yahoo’s Mike Silver. Silver’s Twitter bio reads, “I cover the NFL like a Snuggie for, well … The Man.”
Silver and Battista and Ian Rapoport (formerly of the Boston Herald) provide the NFL Network with a news wire. On Sunday, Silver reported that the Colts had benched Trent Richardson. That’s certainly a scoop. But look closely at it. As it runs along the NFL Network crawl, it has a strange side effect. The scoop increases your interest in the NFL. It makes you pull up your fantasy roster and start Donald Brown. Or cruise over to Colts-Titans on Sunday Ticket to see Richardson standing on the sidelines with his helmet off. It’s … fun to know.
The scoop becomes eventized. You can see how easy it is for Journalist Brain and Fan Brain to get confused.
When I flipped over to the NFL Network on Sunday, Michael Irvin was quoting Twelfth Night. “You can be born great,” Irvin said. “You can achieve greatness. And some of us have greatness thrust upon them.” Close enough. Irvin, an analyst for GameDay Morning, was doing a feature in which he looks into a camera and tries to fire up one team. Here, he was addressing the Bears defense before it faced Adrian Peterson. “No doubt, greatness has been thrust upon you …” Irvin boomed. “So, today, I need all of you Bears to wake up, out of hibernation, and shipwreck these Captain Peterson–led Vikings. Re-author, rewrite, and redefine your legacy!”
Bill Shakespeare, the old Notre Dame halfback, couldn’t have said it better.
When Irvin’s soliloquy ended, he walked across the stage to a horseshoe-shaped desk where his colleagues sat. They are Eisen, Steve Mariucci, Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner, and Warren Sapp. Someday, I’ll figure out why every NFL pregame show must include exactly one host, between three and five former players, and one former coach. Someday when I have a lot of time.
Eisen turned to Warner. “We must pause,” Eisen said, “and remember the ‘stache.” Warner has just shaved the mustache he’d grown for Movember. The network played a video package of Warner’s formerly hirsute upper lip, set to porny music. When it came back to the guys, everyone was laughing. Really laughing, per Eisen.
They made predictions. Every pregame show must have predictions, strenuously argued and instantly forgotten. (Though, per the league, these predictions may not be made against the betting line.) Faulk found himself as the only panelist who picked the Rams over the Niners. In the jargon of GameDay Morning, that made Faulk the “lone wolf.” He looked at the camera and howled. “Aaaaaoooooh!”
Here, you see something else happening on the NFL Network. It’s sanding off the league’s rough edges. The NFL is a soulless board meeting; the NFL Network is the annual corporate picnic. It is the place employees can cut up and have fun, all while staying praiseful of The Product.
This is what NFL Films has been doing for decades. Two days after GameDay, the network aired an NFL Films documentary in its “A Football Life” series called The Great Wall of Dallas. The documentary celebrated the Cowboys offensive lines of the 1990s — Nate Newton, Erik Williams. I grew up with those offensive lines. I don’t remember them ever getting such a generous treatment, or a nickname other than Newton’s “The Kitchen” and Williams’s “Big E.”
But the NFL Network loves ex-players. It employs around 40 former players and coaches during the season. Those players and coaches have an aggregate 19 Super Bowl rings. There are four Hall of Famers on NFL Network and, as the staff likes to note, Warner and LaDainian Tomlinson, an analyst on Total Access, are merely awaiting their inductions.
Players can be unpredictable. As Goodell would be the first to tell you, they don’t always toe the company line. In 2003, Warren Sapp called the NFL office his “slave master.” A few months before, Sapp had been hired as an NFL Network analyst. Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue explained, “The NFL Network is making its decision based on who can be interesting on television. What more can you say? What more should you say?”1
But in 2006, Bryant Gumbel, the NFL’s first play-by-play man, made a crack about union chief Gene Upshaw. Gumbel said that before Tagliabue stepped down, he should show Goodell where he kept Upshaw’s “leash.” Tagliabue said the comment “calls into question [Gumbel’s] desire to do the job and do it in a way that we in the NFL would expect it to be done.”
Gumbel, who was terrible at play-by-play, disappeared two years later. Sapp, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, is part of the NFL’s firmament. He is beyond gaffes. On Sunday, Sapp was in his regular seat on GameDay Morning, high-fiving Irvin for quoting Twelfth Night.
Journalist Brain here again. Talking to Andrea Kremer. Last year, the NFL Network hired Kremer for the job of chief correspondent for player safety and health. In these times, that means Kremer is the network’s CTE ombudsman.
“No one’s going to tell Andrea what to do and how to cover anything, I assure you of that,” Eisen said.
Kremer was a reporter at ESPN and NBC. She’s the kind of noodge who causes the league problems. Last January, she reported a story on the painkiller Toradol for Real Sports. The league’s radio silence pleased her. “What are they going to say?” Kremer said. “It’s airing. I didn’t say anything wrong. There’s no retraction necessary.”
When the NFL’s Mark Quenzel first approached Kremer about a job, she demurred: “I told him, ‘I haven’t been in this business as long as I have … I haven’t won Emmys, broken exclusives — I didn’t do it to turn into a propaganda machine.'” Kremer said Quenzel promised she could report anything on the NFL Network, so long as she had both sides of the story. She was satisfied and is now part of a five-woman production team.
“Going into the Super Bowl last year,” Kremer said, “Eric Weinberger says, ‘The big issue has been about concussions. We need something concussion-related.’ Gee, Eric, I appreciate that pointed suggestion there!”
Kremer interviewed Jaguars receiver Laurent Robinson, who suffered four concussions in a single season. She found Robinson in his darkened house, avoiding his newborn daughter because the crying made his head hurt. The piece’s power wasn’t diminished because it ran during the NFL Network’s 140 hours — not a typo — of live Super Bowl coverage. “I don’t think it was a great thing for the league for a player who had four concussions in four months to be highlighted during the Super Bowl,” Kremer said.
Has the network killed a piece because it was too controversial? I asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” Kremer said. “I don’t know about it. I have never received a call from anybody saying, ‘You can’t do this story because the league doesn’t want it, because the league won’t allow it.'” Speaking of concussions, she added, “You can’t act like this stuff doesn’t exist. If the network wants credibility, they can’t act that way. They just can’t.”
At one of my last SportsCenter ideas meetings, in April or late March ,” Eisen said, “I broached the idea of doing an NFL story. I was essentially laughed out of the room. It was the sweet spot of baseball’s Opening Day, the Final Four, the eighth and final playoff spot in hockey and hoops. No one wanted to talk about the NFL.”
The NFL Network has won that argument. Goodell himself admitted that this is part of the channel’s genius. If the NFL Network talks football constantly, then it puts pressure on its own partners to keep pace.
We’re all eventizers now. The NFL Network has a special in which the fall schedule is “released.” Last year, ESPN2 had its own two-hour special. The NFL Network has a show in which a new host city for the Super Bowl is tapped. In 2010, when the Super Bowl was awarded to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, “that announcement was carried by CNN,” Weinberger said.
There was a time when viewers made do with four NFL morning pregame shows: on Fox, CBS, ESPN, and the NFL Network. This season, there are seven. (CBS Sports TV, FS1, and ESPN2 have all joined.) The shows account for at least 18 hours of NFL talk before any game is played.
Players hate Thursday Night Football because it shortens their recovery period. (“It feels horrible,” one player told The MMQB.) Viewers complain about downers like Jags-Texans. But the Thursday games have an average of 7.8 million viewers. If the NFL once had a rhythmic “week,” in which everyone took a deep breath as soon as the Monday Night crew signed off, that week now lasts three days. And that’s if Weinberger doesn’t cut to a press conference.
Eisen called the NFL Network “a place to keep the light on for the NFL every single day of the year.” That light is now the Great Chicago Fire. The NFL covers itself. The rest of us cover the NFL, lest it cover itself better and more thoroughly than we can. Journalist Brain and Fan Brain give up and hug each other. And all of us sail along into an NFL-obsessed future. You can laugh, but don’t force it.