Prepared For Football’s Future

When interviewing for a job, be prepared for any and all questions.

As I was being interviewed for a job last week, I was asked one such question that I have had a hard time shaking from my mind. It wasn’t that the question threw me for a loop. But rather, the answer I gave reminded me of what I believe about the future of football in this country. Call me crazy but I don’t think the future is bright for the NFL.

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The NFL continues to be the most popular sport in America. Despite lower preseason ratings this year, the NFL still rules the sports roost on television. With the 2013 season about to get underway, its popularity won’t be waning any time soon. Living in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle Seahawks country, I can confirm that NFL fans are filled with passionate anticipation for their team’s season.

Part of that reason has to be because of fantasy football. Judging by my Twitter feed and lists, now more than ever, fantasy football participation is at an all-time high. The league itself has ramped up its efforts in this area too.

Fantasy Genius

We’re long past the days of watching the NFL to cheer on “your” team. Launching Fantasy Genius, the NFL knows that fans tune in perhaps just as much for their Fantasy Football teams as they do for their team. Go to any sports site and they will have either a fantasy football league you can join, tips to pick your team, a who’s hot/not in trade value, and much more. According to this NBC News article just posted today, fantasy football is a $3.4 billion per year industry.

It’s not just fans either.

Maurice Jones-Drew (MJD) was participating in a #FantasyFootball chat last week with Roddy White. Above was one of the questions posed to MJD. It’s a question he’s probably been asked quite often judging by this 2009 article. Players have been playing fantasy football for years. Gambling isn’t allowed, so fantasy football fills “an itch”, if you will, for players looking to get in on the action that is so popular with fans and media. 

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The high school my children have gone/will go to is adding a sport this year. Being a small school, it participates in one the lowest classifications in the state of Washington. The fall season had long been known as soccer season for the school. Small enrollment sizes means smaller numbers of sports offered to students. But this year, per the request of football-minded parents, they are adding a football team.

Just as some parts of the country are seeing a decline in youth-football numbers, this school is jumping in with both feet. Unless enrollment size is increased, I do not foresee a two-sport fall season lasting very long at this school. Soccer or football will have to go.

Another small school in our area added football to their offerings back in 2007. I can imagine the excitement of parents and students prior to that initial season. Remembering the fun I had on Friday nights attending my high school’s football games, I can see why schools add it to their roster of sports.

In 2009, however, all that changed.

A 17-year-old high school football player from Spokane died after suffering a head injury during a game Friday night.

I remember this story.

I remember it because Drew Swank was the same age as my oldest son. By all accounts, Drew loved sports. And, he loved football. He loved playing it. But, his death on the football field rattled the school community. Before the following season (2010), the school dropped the sport.

Drew’s death wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last. Just this year, several high school players in various parts of the country have died during practice.

Is it any wonder, then, that current some NFL players (not to mention, President Obama) are leaning toward not letting their own children play football? Current Houston Texans running back, Arian Foster, doesn’t think he will:

“I love the game and everything, but this hurts, man,” Foster said. “It’s a lot of work, man. Let Daddy put in the work so you can go study art or something.”

If an NFL player questions whether or not he’d let his own children play, what about other parents across the country? Parents in other countries where they play football? How will that bode for the future of football in this country?

(Recommended reading – End Game: Brain Trauma And The Future Of Youth Football In America)

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The interview question was, ‘What do you think is the biggest challenge facing college football?’

Funny. Just the other day, prior to my interview, I had ranked my favorite sports to watch. Finally, I admitted to myself and everyone else, that college football was my favorite. For the record, the NFL came in a distant fourth.

Now here I was being asked what my favorite sport was and the biggest challenge it faced during an interview. Funny how that works sometimes, huh?

With all the recruiting and NCAA issues that college football faced/faces, neither of those were my first thought. My first thought was the concussion issue. The health issue. The safety issue. Those issues are the biggest ones the sport of football faces this year. And next year. And the year after. 

I harkened back to a 2012 quote I read from Dallas Cowboys’ NFL Hall of Famer, Troy Aikman:

“I think that we’re at a real crossroads, as it relates to the grassroots of our sport, because if I had a 10-year-old boy, I don’t know that I’d be real inclined to encourage him to go play football, in light of what we are learning from head injuries. And so what is the sport going to look like 20 years from now? I believe, and this is my opinion, that at some point football is not going to be the No. 1 sport. You talk about the ebbs and flows of what’s popular and what’s not. At some point, the TV ratings are not going to be there.”

The concussion/safety issue is very real for the NFL. Real as in the form of litigation. Not a week goes by that we don’t read another story about the NFL’s off-field dilemma. This week alone news that ESPN was discontinuing its association with PBS’ “Frontline” program made waves across the sports industry. Frontline is getting set to air a documentary, “League of Denial”. As this Washington Post article states,

“The title and trailer for the film portray it is a hard-hitting indictment of the NFL’s handling of head injuries.”

“Handling of head injuries.” Ominous words. But, the NFL is trying to make the game safer. Rules changes seemingly every year attest to that fact (think “NFL = No Fun League). But it’s what they didn’t do in decades past that has them face-to-face with an uncertain future now.

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Football will still be around in 2014. In 2015. Probably in 2016 and several years beyond that too. As long as the interest from fans (i.e. ratings) is there, the NFL will remain the “top dog” in American sports. I’ll continue to read these types of statements on Twitter when it comes to the NFL:

“They’re the big behemoth.”

“Any litigation will take years to resolve.”

“It’s the #1 league for a reason.”

“Nobody will topple them.”

That’s what people believe. Hard to argue with those statements now. Ratings, gambling and fantasy football will all probably see growth this year.

However, looking at the big picture tells me to take heed of what someone like Troy Aikman says. Big picture tells me that no matter how long the litigation takes, what we know as football now, is not what it will be in our children’s future. In 20 years like Aikman mentioned (now, 19 years since his comments)? I may be wrong but, I don’t see football as “the” sport anymore.

That doesn’t mean Aikman is right. Or that I’m right. I hope we’re both wrong because I love watching football. I’m not naive enough to think it’s going away soon.  I won’t watch preseason NFL but come Thursday, as well as the following Thursday, of course I’ll be watching the start of both the college and NFL football seasons, respectively. I’m still a fan.

But, I’m a realistic fan who hasn’t been able to shake Aikman’s words from my memory (see this 2012 post I wrote about NFL and MLB).

*

I was prepared for the interview question about the biggest challenge facing college football (or football in general). Turning the tables, my question and final thought:

Are you prepared for a different or no-NFL in the future?

Whatever happens to the NFL in court, will trickle down to college and youth football. Even if the appeals process drag on in years, changes could be swift in youth football programs in this country. Those who say nothing will ever top the NFL, aren’t being realistic. They’re looking at the sport through NFL-colored glasses. They refuse to even entertain the thought of it, let alone trying to answer that question.

Look at the ratings, they say. It’s a money-making machine, they boast.

That’s not big picture thinking.

And in my book, that’s not being prepared.

***

CadChica Sports

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