The Hollywoodization of the NFL: How the NFL Has Evolved from Sport to Spectacle
The NFL is as popular as ever and, although the memorable games and superstars are the chief reason why that is the case, it's not the only one.
The NFL brand has become as widespread and massive as any in the world and it's largely due to the fact that it's a league about much more than 11 men facing 11 other men along the line of scrimmage.
Why is that?
Here are five explanations as to how the NFL evolved to the massive spectacle it currently is.
No. 5: Celebrations
The league has started to crack down on it with penalties and even fines, but celebrations are as much a part of the NFL as cheerleaders and rowdy fans.
Whether it's a spike like Rob Gronkowski's, a dance like Victor Cruz's, Aaron Rodgers' Championship Belt-thing or something totally insane like Chad Johnson used to do, the touchdown celebration injects something extra to the NFL that seems tailor-made for Hollywood.
Marketing and self-promotion go hand-in-hand with Hollywood, and when it comes to NFL touchdown celebrations, the same is true.
No. 4: Quarterbacks
Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Howie Long—even Terrell Owens—and Chad Ochocinco all have dabbled in movies and television with varying degrees of success.
But it's the quarterback position that has really have helped push the NFL out of the sports realm to a league that grabs the attention of those who don't know a handoff from a Hail Mary.
No other position in all of (team) sports attracts quite as much focus. Nolan Ryan only appeared every fifth game, Babe Ruth only took the plate in one-ninth of his team's at-bats, Michael Jordan only took one-third of his team's shots and Dominik Hasek only took centerstage for a handful of moments per game.
Quarterbacks touch the ball only every offensive play of every game. It's a position that naturally lends itself to attention.
Joe Namath was probably the quarterback who transcended sports—the sunglasses, the guarantee, the fur coat, the pantyhose commercial, the hob-nobbing with stars—but he's certainly not the last. Look at Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Tim Tebow. Their lives away from football garner ink on the gossip pages, not just the sports pages.
In short quarterbacks are ready-made icons and there's nothing Hollywood craves more than stars.
No. 3: Corporate Sponsorship
Fortunately the NFL's marriage with corporate sponsorship isn't quite as solid as some other sports like the PGA Tour and the college football bowl season: As of yet, we don't have the "Verizon Super Bowl" or "Taco Bell's NFC Championship Game."
But there is still an unbreakable bond between the NFL and corporate sponsorship and that is a major reason why the game has pushed past "sport" and into "spectacle."
Beer companies, shoe companies, car companies, banks and investment firms—you name it—love to advertise with the NFL via either commercials, print ads, banners or earning the coveted "Official Sponsor of the NFL" label.
All those companies want in return for their millions (billions?) of dollars in investments is facetime and exposure.
And nothing says spectacle quite like corporate tents, defacto billboards within stadiums or venues dubbed Met Life Stadium, Edward Jones Dome or Lincoln Financial Field.
No. 2: Television
It's no coincidence that the NFL started it's rise to "national pasttime" status at the same time that televisions became a must-have in every American home.
Television brought the NFL mainstream by having a regular, fixed schedule that everyone came to know: if it was a Sunday in autumn or winter, there is a football game.
But that hasn't always been enough for the NFL.
The television networks compete with one another to put on the best games, heighten the best storylines, have the best broadcast team, the best pregame show, the best halftime dissection, the best postgame show, etc.
Fox has Frank Caliendo do his impressions so CBS has to have the Victoria's Secret angels on the set. So, to compete with that, NBC has to have Faith Hill sing that song in leather pants every Sunday night while ESPN has to one-up-them with someone (other than Hank Williams Jr., now) to introduce the Monday Night game.
Absolutely none of those elements have anything to do with football and everything to do with making football the reason for bigger ratings and more pomp and circumstance.
No. 1: The Super Bowl
For millions of Americans the final game of the NFL season (i.e. the Super Bowl) takes a back seat to the celebrity watching, the halftime show and the commercials.
Now, hopefully, as long as there is an NFL, the championship game that takes place on the first Sunday in Februray will always be the biggest centerpiece, but that is starting to change when Madonna, M.I.A, Nikki Minaj, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Clint Eastwood, Darth Vader-kid and the like steal headlines the following morning.
All of those outside influences bring in new fans which is ultimately good for the game, but as a result, part of the day (the week, in fact) is tailored to entertainment and not football. And Hollywood was built on entertainment.
But more to the point, the Super Bowl has become another one of our annual (secular) American holidays like New Years Eve, Independence Day and Thanksgiving, each of which is a prime example of excess and overdoing it.