As a sports fanatic from India, brought up primarily on cricket, soccer and field hockey, moving to the United States in the summer of 2004 was a massive sporting culture shock. The only American sports I had any awareness of were basketball (King MJ has always been a truly global phenomenon) and baseball (courtesy of prior vacations spent with my Orioles-supporting cousins).
Unfortunately, there was no extensive coverage of soccer in those days in the US. And considering that I landed in June, the only sport I could watch was baseball. I followed the "galacticos" of the New York Yankees for a while, and on the whole, I was impressed by the extent and depth of baseball coverage and the level of game and player analysis.
And then the NFL hit me.
I had heard, in the past, about the Super Bowl (and the famous commercials). I had heard of Joe Montana and John Elway. And that was pretty much it. But, make no mistake, by the Fall of 2004, I was left in no doubt whatsoever about the identity and status of the religion that is the NFL.
In a few weeks, I was pretty much hooked onto a weekly dose of football. I gradually became better acquainted with the rules. I finally realized the importance of a first down!! I began to appreciate the physicality of the game. And over the years, I gained a fair realization of why "football" is indeed a massive sport, and why it means so much to America.
I also began to compare the NFL to my favorite game, soccer, and I realized that there were many things that each sport could learn from the other, both on and off the field. I thought about this comparison even more, when I moved to the UK (where I also watched the NFL every Sunday night!!) four years later and gained a ringside seat to the world's best and most popular soccer league.
And today, seven years on, having moved back to India, I decided to pen down some of these thoughts.
Here is Part 1: Five things football can learn from soccer.
Wembley Stadium: World headquarters of the NFL
I can see the point when people scoff at the assertion that the winners of the NFL's Vince Lombardi trophy are "world champions."
It's not that the winners aren't the best football team in the world. The fact is that the world doesn't play football.
I know that the NFL can easily sustain itself in the foreseeable future by catering to a largely American market. But for how long? There is competition from within and without. And soccer, the only truly global game, is showing the way.
MLS and world soccer are increasing in popularity in the US by the day. Every year, a former world star joins the rapidly improving MLS roster. Each soccer preseason, Europe's top clubs visit the US to gain a share of what promises to be the next big soccer market.
This year, Barcelona and Manchester United, among others, completed a large portion of their preseason preparations in America. They sold out stadiums everywhere they went. And for the first time, there was fan hysteria on the streets, in the airports and in team hotels.
The changing demographic of the US is also playing a role here. As the Hispanic population continues to grow in America, soccer's popularity will continue to skyrocket.
From a team owners' perspective, an increasing number of American billionaires are choosing to invest in foreign soccer teams. At this moment, four of English soccer's biggest clubs (Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Aston Villa) are controlled by Americans. Per the Forbes list of the world's most valuable sports teams, Manchester United now sits in the No. 1 position. The financial dominance of the NFL on that list is undoubted, but soccer is catching up.
FIFA (world soccer's largely defunct governing body) now has 208 member countries. It's time for the NFL to reach out to the world. More TV coverage, more merchandise, a few preseason games, setting up coaching facilities, trying to set up local leagues in other countries. I'm sure all of this is on the NFL's radar, and some of it is already in the works, but if football is to rule the world, it first needs to reach out to the world.
The right way to end a game?
60 minutes of adrenaline-charged football. Two evenly matched teams that just cannot be separated. Passing, running and defense of the highest quality from both teams. But the game ends in a tie.
And you decide it with a kick?
Cold hard fact—over 70 percent of NFL games that go into overtime are decided by field goals. Joy for the winning team, but devastation for the losers. And in spite of the recent overtime rule change, that percentage is unlikely to get any lower.
Soccer, hockey and cricket, the three team sports I grew up watching, all allow ties. Now I admit that in certain situations, this prompts a conservative and defensive strategy from the weaker team, thereby impacting the game as a spectacle. But it's much easier to defend a small goal than it is to defend a 160 foot long end zone. I don't believe that you can adopt a defensive approach in football. The ultimate objective will always be to score a touchdown.
How often have we watched a close-fought game decided by an overtime field-goal and said, "that was harsh on the losing team?" It's even worse for the fans, who see their team give it their all, come close to winning themselves, and then end up going home empty-handed, all because of a kick. There's nothing wrong with shaking hands at the end of a game and saying "well done" to each other, and accepting that there was nothing between the two teams. In fact, I believe that's the fairest outcome.
In the playoffs, there would be no option but to play overtime, in case of a tie. But here, too, I would propose a rule-change. Overtime (at least the first period) should not be of the sudden death variety. It should go on for a specified duration, and the team in front at the end of this period would be declared winners. This gives both teams a fair chance to win, and more importantly, it gives a team the chance to fight back, in case it has conceded early points.
Too much of a good thing?
The telecast of a normal soccer game is completed in two hours, of which the playing time is approximately 90 minutes, around 85 percent of the total duration. An average NFL game is completed in two and a half to three hours. Of this, game time amounts to only 60 minutes. That's approximately 35 percent of the total duration. In a world where the demands on our time multiply every day, this is not good enough.
How long can the NFL continue to ask its fans to devote three hours to a game, but provide real value for only one? I understand that given the nature of football, and the number of special teams that exist, time will be lost in players entering and leaving the field.
Then, of course, there are the breaks in between quarters. I also understand that replays, analysis and to an extent, cheerleaders, are necessary. But that shouldn't take more than an hour in all. The game definitely needs to be hurried up a bit. Even cricket, that staid old English game, has forced to adapt itself from the erstwhile five-day staple ("Test cricket") to a snappier, three-hour version which has taken the cricket world by storm ("20-20").
Most importantly, the NFL needs to find a way to satisfy its sponsors without interrupting the game. Two possible solutions come to mind immediately. Firstly, increase the amount of on-field advertising (on the surface itself and around the perimeter), such that banners will automatically be picked up by television cameras throughout the game.
Second, allow corporate sponsorship on team jerseys. I'm not sure why this concept has not caught on in any major American sport (I don't call the MLS truly "major" just yet), but it seems like the most obvious solution. The best ad space could then be available to 32 different companies. And we wouldn't have to sit through the same ads over and over again.
Looking forward, if the NFL can't provide better value for time, something else might.
As much as I admire a number of things about American sports, there are a few quirks that I just don't get. One of them is the divisional system. Here are a few questions I ask myself and other sports fans:
Why can't football teams play each other in one open league, just like soccer?
Why must you play against, by and large, the same set of teams every season?
Why must you be judged against the same four or five teams, year after year, forever?
What motivates the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays fan to go out and support their respective baseball teams, when they know there is literally no chance of making the playoffs?
No, I just don't understand why there must be a divisional system. I know that with 32 teams in the NFL, all teams can't play each other, but why can't there be an open draw when fixtures are decided? That way fans can get to see many more teams.
Also, the best players have a better chance of competing against each other, thereby enhancing the fan experience. And while there is some charm in local rivalries, it shouldn't be at the expense of testing your team against a wider variety of opponents. This might lead to an increase in travel costs, but that would hardly be noticeable in the larger scheme of things.
Also, at season end, why not just rank the teams within the conference? That way everyone has a fairer chance of making the playoffs.
I know this would represent a significant departure from how things are done presently, but in the interest of more open competition, it might be a good change.
Buffalo Bills: Good enough for the NFL??
I know brickbats are coming my way, but before that, consider the following statements:
- Over the past 10 NFL regular seasons, an average of five teams have had a winning percentage of 25 percent or less.
- To provide the best competition, and enable maximum improvement, the best teams and players should play each other as often as possible.
- Eight teams have failed to reach the NFL playoffs in any of the past five seasons.
I'm not suggesting any major overhaul here, but I believe there is the scope to make a minor reduction in the number of teams, as many soccer leagues have done over the past 20 years, from 32 to 28. I also believe there should be a second tier (like a minor league) below the NFL, and a system of promotion/relegation to and from the NFL, so that more cities and franchises can experience the big league.
Those who follow any of Europe's top soccer leagues will know what I mean when I say that in most years, the battle to avoid relegation is at least as exciting as the battle for the championship. This will add another unique dimension to the NFL, as well as extend its appeal to cities that do not presently own franchises.
Financially, the NFL remains the preeminent sporting competition in the world, but if it doesn't quickly catch up with evolution, competition may start catching up with the NFL.