Saturday, February 1, 2014

NFL Road Trip 2013 - Mediocre Media

After nearly two weeks of talk, the Super Bowl is finally here. And yes, I will be going to the game, finishing off my NFL Road Trip in style. I was able to find a reasonably priced ticket online and so far it looks like I did OK, getting in for less than half the median price for a seat in Row 7 of the upper end zone, which is where I like to sit. Super Bowl XLVIII will be my XXXVIth game of the season - all 32 stadiums during the regular season and 4 playoff tilts. As far as I know this has not been done before. I did contact the Guinness Book of Records, but they only consider a record in terms of the time taken to see a game at all 32 stadiums. Peter Baroody did that in 2003 in just 16 weeks while driving 30,000 miles, so I will have to be content with an unprovable record of attending 36 games in one season.

The Super Bowl experience in New York wasn't that interesting. I did attend Media Day and the following afternoon I spent about 20 minutes walking along Super Bowl Boulevard (Broadway between 34th and Times Square) in Manhattan, but it was crowded, cold and rather dull. Hundreds of fans were lined up to take a picture with the Lombardi Trophy while others paid $5 to ride a short plastic slide that was dubbed a "toboggan run". The highlights were free food: Papa John's was giving away pizza slices and there was an ice cream truck handing out softees for dessert. With temperatures below freezing, I certainly garnered me some strange looks as I walked along the street chomping on an ice cream cone. Outside of that downtown area though, few Gotham residents really care about the Super Bowl. I live in Astoria which is an extremely diverse neighbourhood, and there was no buzz whatsoever. I don't think the game will return here ever again so I am glad that everything worked out and I will be able to see my first and likely last Super Bowl in the city where I live.

Anyway, the trip is now over and I want to comment on the one phenomenon that I found increasingly frustrating on my trip, namely an incredibly disappointing and tiresome sports media. Having spent time in press boxes, it appears as if most beat writers are just bitter cynics who have lost their curiosity about the world. They blindly accept a narrative without challenging the assumptions behind it. Once a story is out there and adopted as truth, it becomes nearly impossible to find someone within a big organization willing to mount a contrarian stance. Take Peyton Manning's record in cold weather, which has been bandied about for years. Check out his stats here and you can see that the numbers are not that different regardless of the weather. Bill Barnwell of Grantland is one who does try to find the reality behind the numbers and is worth following for that reason alone.

Part of the problem might be related to the explosion of social media, which enables anyone to become a celebrity. Previously anonymous sportswriters, relegated to a press box, suddenly have access to thousands of followers, allowing them to emulate those that they cover. Rather than think about a new story, they can report on themselves! So now their wardrobe becomes meaningful information. Perhaps I am being a bit unfair as there were a few Bronco fans that might have found that particular tweet interesting, but the larger point is that the sports media now reports on anything without regard to importance or relevance, as long as it can be contained in 140 characters or a single webpage.

I know that there are plenty of sports sites that employ long form, with the aforementioned Grantland the leader. The site has been the subject of recent controversy over Dr V's Magical Putter, an article that may have caused its subject to commit suicide. I don't want to get into the ethics of that particular article here as they have been dissected more than enough by far, far better writers. Rather I'd like to use Robert Lipsyte's term from his Ombudsman reply to the piece, in which he referred to many longform pieces as "bloated selfies". Without a doubt, much of Grantland's (and other longform) work these days sees the writer involved far too deeply in the narrative. I don't know when sportswriting became about the author as much as the subject, but it is clear that Grantland has become a self-congratulatory operation where the writers are trying to impress one another (and head honcho Bill Simmons) more than inform the reader. Much like a reporter telling us about his life on Twitter, the messenger has become the message.

Ultimately though, it is the mainstream media's reluctance to provide a new point of view that I found most annoying. During my trip, I read several articles about how attending an NFL game is no longer enjoyable, usually written by a fan who suffered through a bad game surrounded by idiots, or by a member of the media just trolling (I commented on this last article which you can see if you scroll down). During the 35 games I attended, I can't think of one terribly negative experience that I had, at least due to other fans. Of course, I did not dress in the visiting team's jersey even in those rare cases I cheered for them (Buffalo in New Orleans and Cleveland). I am pretty much a nondescript fan watching with binoculars and taking lots of pictures. I don't drink at games and I generally only interact with those next to me if they strike up a conversation first. I don't get up during the action; I am there to watch the game. Yes, there are drunks at most contests, but they are generally harmless. I met a few here and there without incident. It is usually when one drunk runs into another that news is made, but I never saw anything like that taking place. Much of the reported violence takes place in parking lots after the game, but as I rarely drove, I never had a chance to witness any of it. Given that total attendance at NFL games was 17.3 million people (about 5.5% of the population), the problems are really overblown, but of course, that is what you are going to hear about as people who just watch the game are not newsworthy.

Some of the other complaints from these writers are valid, such as the cost of tickets, food, and parking and the hassle of getting to the stadium (I avoided these mostly because I was travelling and staying nearby and I can avoid eating for 3 hours) but even then, these inconveniences are always mitigated by seeing the event with your own eyes. There is nothing like being there and if you are a true sports fan, you will agree with me. Look at Super Bowl ticket prices if you need further proof.

So clearly I would have positive things to say about seeing an NFL game live, yet not a single member of the media that we contacted over the past three months of the trip bothered to even reply to us, with the singular exception of Tim Baines, an excellent writer at my hometown Ottawa Sun, who issued a nice piece midway through the journey. Still, that was more about the logistics than the experience and even now during Super Bowl Week, my attempts to find a single writer that might want to publicize my trip failed miserably. Given that most sportswriters are more concerned about reporting on themselves or simply repeating old stories, this is not surprising.

I don't suppose hypercritical blog posts like these help matters, but at the end of this escapade, I can't help but realize that the sports media has become the least useful group of the Fifth Estate, essentially no better than entertainment reporters like those on TMZ. I realize that I am part of the problem with this blog, but at least I will try to be just as contrarian going forward and continue to plan plenty of interesting sports road trips. I hope you keep following along.



Update: For a perfect example of what I am talking about, read this Grantland piece on the Super Bowl. You learn more about the writer than the event itself. Media writing about their necessarily simplified personal experience (how much were your tickets Brian? Enjoy that NJ transit ride?) is brutal to read, at least for somebody who attended the game without an assignment. Does anybody else really care about this? I'd much rather read another fan's experience, even if the quality of the writing is not as good.


  1. I agree there is nothing like being there. But I disagree that the price of Superbowl tickets is proof of that. The Superbowl is about the spectacle not the game. I bet there are fewer true fans at that game than at any regular season game.
    Enjoy the game!

    1. That's a great point and having been to the game now, I realize that you are entirely correct. I read that only 20% of Super Bowl tickets are sold above face value, the rest go to corporate sponsors, friends of players, and other hangers on. My section was filled with a few true fans (including one tortured Broncos supporter who was sitting in the first row next to the railing - I feared he might jump by the end of it) but most were just people who acquired a ticket through friends. Many started filing out in the third quarter, including some who left at 29-0, i.e. just after halftime. Guess they were more interested in Bruno Mars.