I had a thought the other day that I quickly dismissed as more my own personal bias than reality.
But then I heard a national sportscaster give voice to my exact thoughts on ESPN.
So is it true? Can sports fans really be more excited about the NFL preseason than about the final few weeks of baseball’s regular season?
In a word, yep.
Don’t believe me? Look at the ratings. ESPN drew 4.76 million viewers for its August 13 live broadcast of the Pittsburgh Steelers/Arizona Cardinals NFL preseason game. Three days later, ESPN could only attract 1.2 million viewers to its Atlanta Braves/Philadelphia Phillies MLB game.
Both games were on ESPN, both games started at 7 PM CST, and both games had to go up against CBS’s reality juggernaut Big Brother. And the viewership totals weren’t even close.
Now is a NFL preseason game inherently more entertaining than a late-August Major League Baseball game? I don’t think many sports fans would say yes.
But here’s what the NFL has going into its regular season that baseball does not have going into its final month: Drama.
Yes, Joe Mauer is a great story. Yes, the wild cards are somewhat up for grabs. But outside of the AL Central, none of the division races are really close. And look at the teams that are once again making their way to the postseason: The Yankees. The Cardinals. The Dodgers. Wow. I haven’t been so shocked since Kristie Alley gained all of her weight back.
In contrast, the NFL is brimming with fascinating storylines heading into September.
And since September also marks the beginning of the “traditional” TV season, and I am a “traditional” kind of guy, let’s look at the top five NFL questions through some TV-colored glasses:
1. Which experiment has a better chance of working, Brett Favre as a Minnesota Viking or NBC’s The Jay Leno Show?
Here are two things that two years ago I never would have seen coming: Favre in purple and a major television network (well, NBC) giving up five hours of prime time a week for what is essentially a late-night talk show.
The expectations for Favre are overwhelming. Ever since he expressed interest in playing for Minnesota over a year ago, every blogger, columnist, and reporter willing to weigh in on the subject (so pretty much half the world’s population) has commented that a quarterback of Favre’s skill and experience is the sole missing piece on a team with a terrific run game and a terrific run defense.
But Favre at (almost) 40 is not Favre at 29. And after his first preseason start as a Viking in which he looked simply terrible (how terrible? He was totally outplayed by Tavaris Jackson), it’s completely unclear on whether the Vikings will get the mature, smarter Favre of 2007 or the injured, locker-room cancer Favre of 2008.
In contrast, the expectations for Jay Leno are small. Putting his show in primetime five nights a week is a cost-cutting move by NBC. While local affiliates may grumble about a lousy late news lead-in, if Leno is even remotely close to the ratings of other 9 PM shows such as CSI: Miami and The Mentalist, NBC will consider the move a success.
2. Which disgraced public figure will be more immediately welcomed back into America’s hearts? Michael Vick or Michael Richards?
In my view, Michael Vick, no matter how well he’s been coached to say the right things in press conferences or on 60 Minutes, is still a lowlife. But he’s done his court-ordered time and it seems that the majority of Americans, save for animal rights groups, are willing to give him another chance. And in sports, little else matters if you’re winning. The Eagles are a very strong team and Michael Vick – however head coach Andy Reid chooses to use him – can only make them better.
Michael Richards has been largely out of the public eye since a humiliating and disturbing incident at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory in November of 2006 in which he repeatedly used racial slurs to berate members of his audience during a stand-up routine. While inexcusable, I would rate the public use of one word – however abhorrent the word – as less troubling than the abuse, torture, and execution of countless helpless dogs.
When Vick returns, he will be initially greeted with scores of public protests, which may turn ugly. When Richards returns, as part of a season-long story arc on Curb Your Enthusiasm that premieres on HBO on September 20, he will return triumphant along with Jerry, Elaine, and George as part of one of the most beloved casts in television history. Not only will the reunion be a welcome sight, Curb creator Larry David will undoubtedly make it hysterical.
3. Who will make the better comeback: Tom Brady or Jenna Elfman?
Tom Brady had a season for the ages in 2007 as he led the New England Patriots to a 16-0 regular season. He threw for an NFL-record 50 touchdowns and had a 117.2 passer rating, which was the second-best season rating of all-time. Brady was named the NFL MVP for the season, as well as Offensive Player of the Year.
After missing basically the entire 2008 season after suffering a bad knee injury in week one, the question is whether Brady can once again make the Patriots the best team in the NFL. (Last year’s 11-5 team just barely missed qualifying for the postseason.) With Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and an underappreciated running attack joining Brady, New England should emerge as the AFC team to beat in 2009.
Jenna Elfman, who rose to fame as “Dharma” of ABC’s overrated Dharma & Greg, which ran from 1997-2002, is starring in a new fall sitcom for CBS entitled Accidentally On Purpose. AOP is actually her second comeback attempt following the dismal 2006 CBS sitcom Courting Alex which lasted just 12 episodes.
If the painfully unfunny promos are any indication, the only way that I’m going to catch any of Accidentally On Purpose is by accident. I predict that CBS will cancel the show by Christmas – on purpose.
4. Who will benefit more by a change of address: Jay Cutler or Medium?
The fact that both former Broncos quarterback Cutler and former NBC drama Medium were shipped off during the summer seems best explained by one word: incompetency.
The Broncos, and new head coach Josh McDaniels in particular, were incompetent to let Cutler, a great quarterback with an unfortunate penchant for whining, go to the Chicago Bears. NBC, a network mired in fourth place, was incompetent to let Medium, a solidly-performing drama with a loyal audience, go to CBS.
Both Cutler and Medium will do fine at their new homes. But Cutler doesn’t have the receiving corps in Chicago that he had in Denver, and Bears fans aren’t likely to warm to Cutler should he not prove as mentally tough as the teammates he’s supposed to lead.
Meanwhile, Medium should be a slam-dunk ratings winner for CBS on Friday nights following the similarly-themed Ghost Whisperer and leading into the nerdfest Numb3rs.
5. Which history is more likely to repeat itself: The Detroit Lions’ 0-16 record of 2008 or the Melrose Place phenomenon?
The updated Melrose Place series is the CW network’s second attempt to recreate FOX’s winning nineties lineup, following last season’s successful Beverly Hills, 90210 remake.
While no one is happier to re-visit Melrose Place than me—I still recall wistfully the original’s final shot of Heather Locklear and Jack Wagner cavorting on the beach to the tune of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” almost as wistfully as I recall Joyce DeWitt turning out the lights on Three’s Company’s finale—the television universe is simply too fragmented nowadays for the remake to be able to recreate the popularity and buzz of the original. However, that will matter little to Thomas Calabro if the show can recreate 90210’s modest success long enough for him to end his ten years of living on the dole. And I think it can.
But woe are the Detroit Lions. New QB Matthew Stafford and the continuing emergence of Calvin Johnson should make them better, but one look at their schedule reveals only two or three games I would even give them a chance in.
But fear not, Detroit sports fan: The NHL preseason begins September 14.
Answer: 0-16, baby.