The New Breed of NFL Fans
Brutal. Violent. Greedy. Disloyal. Soulless.
Lately, terrible words have been used to describe pro football and the people who organize and play it. That's awful enough, but the ugliness is spreading beyond on-field violence and back-office dealing.
In-between the collisions on the field of battle and the owners' ultra-luxury skyboxes funded with billions of public dollars are the people this Circus Maximus is supposed to be for: the fans.
It's hard to call people who boo every injured opposing player because he might be faking "fans."
It's hard to call people who show up at a struggling player's house to torment him, then cheer him as he leaves the next game injured "fans."
It's hard to call people who can't be bothered to stick around and watch their team win the year's most exciting game to date "fans."
Maybe "consumers" is more accurate.
Total NFL Immersion
"Fan," of course, is short for "fanatic," someone who is absolutely gonzo about something. Today, there have never been more ways to immerse yourself in your NFL fandom. Stadiums are gorgeous, family-friendly theme parks with every conceivable convenience and incredible food and drink options.
With modern satellite TV packages and NFL.com's unprecedented digital video offerings, you can watch any game live from nearly anywhere—then over and over again, in full HD, from proprietary team-only camera angles you used to need a badge and a warrant to get your hands on.
The smorgasbord of memorabilia and knick-knacks available for sale at NFLShop.com boggles the mind. With an unlimited bank account, you could replace nearly everything you own with officially licensed merchandise, outfitting you and yours with home-, school-, leisure- or office-appropriate team gear every day of the week.
It's not just bank accounts fans are draining for the sake of their favorite teams.
The ubiquity of the Internet and high-bandwidth smartphones has opened the floodgates for a massive amount of always-on, always-instant football information.
After carving enough time out of their work and home life to keep up with the screaming-fast cycle of real football news, reaction and analysis, fans still put enough energy into managing fantasy football teams that, per Andy Vuong of The Denver Post, U.S. employers lose billions in productivity every year.
Not So Fanatic
As fans invest never-before-seen amounts of hard-earned money, branding themselves with their team's identity, and incalculable amounts of their precious time devouring every last article, tweet and Team Stream alert related to their team, the relationship between fan and team is changing.
Fans are beginning to demand a return on that investment.
The American family is being squeezed, with debt payments far outstripping our disposable income.
With fans spending more and more of their shrinking entertainment budget on the NFL, they need that football to be entertaining. If it isn't, they vote with their feet.
Fans aren't just leaving early when it looks like a loss is certain. Now, fans are leaving as soon as they think the game is in hand—in either direction.
Once it looks like the game won't be a nail-biter, fans figure they have better things to do. Despite a family of four needing to drop somewhere between a car payment and house payment just to walk in the front door, fans routinely try to "beat the traffic" in the middle of the fourth quarter.
In 2010, Tom Brady ripped New England Patriots fans for leaving en masse during a blowout of the Cincinnati Bengals, per Steve Silva of the Boston Globe. Brady probably longs for those halcyon days, since last Sunday fans walked out by the thousands before he even had a chance to knock off the previously undefeated Saints with a glorious last-gasp touchdown pass.
Consumer Complaints Department
Increasingly, fans are viewing players not as heroes, or even as people, but commodities: as things they paid for and demand to work correctly. As consumer goods that must meet their expectations or be replaced.
Texans fans upset with the disappointing play of quarterback Matt Schaub repeatedly came to his house, parked in his driveway, took pictures of his family and—according to reports Schaub later denied, per ESPN—shouted abuse at him. During the next game, Schaub went down with an ankle injury; many Texans "fans" cheered his replacement.
Most disturbingly of all, when news broke last week that one of Adrian Peterson's sons was brutally attacked, some "fans" (and websites I won't do the favor of linking to) immediately started speculating about the tragedy's impact on fantasy football.
When teams with a reasonable expectation of winning don't start out hot, fans immediately call for players and coaches to lose their jobs.
Does anyone really think backup Derek Anderson would perform better with the same offense and supporting cast? No, this is a knee-jerk response to a "product" (2013 Carolina Panthers football) not immediately measuring up to the jazzy descriptions on the outside of the box.
The Futures Market
In a move that boggles the mind, the Securities and Exchange Commission may allow a company, Fantex Brokerage Services, to sell stock in individual players. That is, you will reap dividends off the player's contract and endorsement income. In theory, should be able to buy, sell and trade those shares on the secondary market like any stock.
The longer you stop and think about the ramifications of this, the crazier it is.
David Lariviere of Forbes raised a few huge red flags in his analysis of Arian Foster's upcoming IPO:
• Would it be possible to “short” the stock so people could conceivably bet against Foster’s success? Would that invite gamblers to bribe defensive players to intentionally hurt Foster?
• How different is this than allowing gambling to be legal as money is directly tied to a player’s performance?
• What would happen to investors if Foster were arrested, as he has been in the past, and banned from the game like Aaron Hernandez was?
• Shouldn’t the conditions of these deals be spelled out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement before they are enacted?
• What’s to stop Foster from buying his own stock, and how is that different than Pete Rose betting on the Reds in baseball?
The brief that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell filed in opposition to New Jersey legalizing sports gambling leapt immediately to my mind. It's quoted here by Sports On Earth's Brian Tuohy:
The new sports gambling scheme that New Jersey proposes would ... greatly increase the likelihood that the allegiance of certain fans will be turned from teams, players and high-level athletic competition, toward an interest first and foremost in winning a bet. The core entertainment value of fair and honest competition between teams and athletes that is reflected in NFL games will be replaced by the bettor's interest, based not on team or player performance, but on the potential financial impact of each on-the-field event.
If the NFL thinks fans betting on teams to win games will unravel the intricate tapestry of fandom, wait until people have huge sums of cash tied up in the production of individual players.
If this becomes reality, players would be fully dehumanized, completely and literally commoditized, worth only the price they can currently be sold for. Any residual value to the team or fans would be exactly that. Players' team affiliations would be just that: temporary affiliations with no real bearing on the players' success.
Were Fantex's securities to become as popular as it hopes, it would mean all but the end of fandom as we know it.
Then again, considering the behavior we've seen this season, maybe "the end of fandom as we know it" already occurred.
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