Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Is The NFL Too Big To Fail?

Let's play a little theoretical exercise here. Let's imagine a league-shaking scandal in the NFL.

I'm not talking about a player in a Vickian nightmare of his own making, or a team-wide scandal like what's gone down in New Orleans or New England. I'm not even talking about the league-wide tragedies that should be a bigger deal but aren't, like Dave Duerson's grisly end, or Andre Waters, or the legions of middle-aged men in wheelchairs.

Rather, imagine something like this:

> A Donaghy-esque referee experience, only with whole corrupt crews, rather than individual bad apples

> Secret camera feeds or audio monitoring to give major media market teams an advantage for future network ratings benefits

> Widespread use, league condoned and maybe even mandated, of PEDs

> A cartel-like exploitation of advertising clients, with the ratings being systematically rigged to create huge unwarranted revenue

> Government corruption where elected officials were gifted with seats and access for huge land use kickbacks, again on a league and/or federal level

You can add in your own fever dreams if you like; these are just the five that I could come up with as being feasible, given current technology, the money involved in Some Teams going deep, and the general venality of a league that brutally injures its players, then more or less denies them medical coverage. The fact is that the NFL is a relentless competitive league, and to assume that the competition ends on the field, or that the people on the business side of things don't drink from the same corporate well, is just silly.

Now, please note that I'm not speaking to the viability of *any* of these theories. Keeping something with many moving parts quiet is hard; so is cutting off all loose ends, and discrediting everyone who might become disgruntled, honest or seek a payday elsewhere. I don't actually think any of what I just proposed is in the least bit likely.

But again, not the point. Take your scandal, and imagine it's real. Give it some details in your mind. Let it take shape. Believe it to be something that could actually hurt the league's popularity, turn casual fans against it, hurt the ratings, cause people to reconsider anti-trust exemptions and land uses and so on, and so on.

Now, ask yourself one question.

Who would report the story?

Certainly not ESPN, the leading news treatment of sports. While they've got the wherewithal to investigate such things, they would not be biting the hand that feeds, and with the network desperate to keep the MNF and pregame show ratings up to justify their revenues -- each and every cable subscriber gives a $60+ annual payday to the World Wide Lemur, whether or not they ever watch the channel -- they'd be more or less risking their entire business. If this story came across their desk, it would get spiked. Hard.

How about Fox? Well, regardless of your opinion of the news department, let's just agree that they've also got massive investments here, with a rotating share of the Super Bowl bonanza, some of the largest media markets thanks to the NFC's superiority on that score, and all kinds of regional networks tied in at the local level. They also deal with a fan base that's older, more conservative, and highly distrustful of any and all media coverage that does not give them what they want. Oh, and the boycott and protest real well, and many of them are armed. No, I'm not imagining Fox breaking this.

NBC? Well, just because you camp out in a different part of the world with the MSNBC subsidiary, that doesn't make you any less interested in biting the ad hand for the flagship SNF telecast. As just about the only show on the network that's pulling big numbers anymore, NBC is tied in tight. CBS nearly as much, though if you wanted to hold out hope that their AFC markets wouldn't exert so much kill story influence, enjoy your hope. I'm still not seeing it. (ABC, of course, is a Disney / Lemur product, and vice versa.)

So what have we got left? Unaffiliated Web sites that generate their own news stories, like Yahoo, AOL or a wire feed, like the Associated Press or Reuters. Maybe someone goes down the quick and dirty payday route with a Gawker/Deadspin or TMZ, or tries to go for substantiation with the New York Times or Washington Post. None of these markets has the pockets, the cojones, or the mass-market credibility to spread the story far enough to achieve escape velocity; all could, and would, be extinguished by the right dose of PR from the league and air cover from the networks. A scapegoat would be found, examples would be made, and within six months, we'd be fully engaged in a ref lockout, Rex Ryan shenanigan and the like.

You see, what we have with the NFL is a league that, like the banks, is too big to fail. It's tied in with every major media conglomerate, wrapped in every state of means, secured its status as the only consistent mass-market advertising vehicle that is DVR-proof and still capable of giving your brand recognition. The vast majority of current stadiums are paid for by the public, and can only seem like even a semblance of a smart purchase if they are open and doing land office business. If you could buy stock in the league as a whole, it would be AAA+ rated, safer than safe.

Which is when, of course, mistakes get made through arrogance, carelessness and overconfidence. The communications technology and distrust of the well-off would mean that a story wouldn't necessarily have to be in major media to still travel through the dry grasslands of social media, and even the low-grade stenographer classes that still work in print media and walk the locker rooms would hear enough to ask a question or six.

It would just take a lot longer, with a lot more fits and starts, and maybe with all kinds of opportunities to bury the lede. And my suspicion is that it would, in fact, be buried; deep and dark and down, with much more money on the side of silence.

Just something to keep in mind, the next time you hear about how concussions are down, or the voters have gone for giving the Vikings a stadium, or that the Super Bowl ads are all sold out, and that the league is wonderful wonderful wonderful.

Because there's no one with any money in the game that will report anything differently.

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