NFL in London, Courtesy of Huffington Post
NFL in London, Courtesy of Huffington Post

So it’s time of year again. The Americans are coming to town, and they’re bringing their biggest present of all: The Super Bowl, or as I have taken to calling it the Superb Owl. Over here (in England) it is met with a very strange and ambiguous buzz, mostly it seems that we couldn’t give a toss however it appears to be growing in popularity. It seems odd that is not a major sport here considering how large it is in America. It’s a gigantic commercial machine with billions of dollars at its disposal, so why hasn’t it taken off?

Firstly, I’d like to start small and look how the sport works on a physical level. The NFL (I will refer to any and all variations of American Football as NFL, so as to avoid confusion with the one true version of football, i.e. Association Football) employs a sort of stop-start mechanic which prevents the continuous enjoyment in Football and the more relaxing enjoyment of something like Cricket. On the other hand it systematically provides you with stuff to anticipate and provides them in brief bursts. The frequent breaks and incremental advancements add micro tension, but never offer anything to the game as a whole. In my opinion, at its core, NFL just isn’t that entertaining, there’s no flow of enjoyment and as such becomes disjointed in its pacing. Contrastingly, in football, the play is always happening, sure there are minor stoppages for goal kicks, throw ins etc but they are only small. In Cricket there are small breaks between each ball and over but the game still flows, albeit slower than football. Slower still, there’s golf; that has people walking from shot to shot, cordially abiding by the complex and ancient rules, however that is all built into the game of golf. If golf had the players slowly walking from shot to shot then frantically hit ten shots in a row and engaged in physical combat, the whole experience would be jarring. The stop-start mechanics of NFL make it hard to “get into”. It’s not even a case of understanding the rules; most of the work from a new viewer comes from why those rules are in place.

So why is it so popular in America? Do Americans “get” something about it that we don’t? Well, maybe. The way I view sport is akin to that of any narrative driven work of art. The reason we engage with sport is because it is presented to us as a narrative. The only way to get invested into a sport is to know who you have to root for and against. For an outsider looking in, I don’t know anything about the Seahawks or the Broncos; I don’t know which team has the most likeable personalities, which team has the most illustrious history. I don’t even know who the underdog is. So how can I be invested with what’s going on? Especially when coupled with the fragmented mechanics of it, it’s difficult to immerse oneself in a game and by extension, the sport.

Is it any wonder why when the Olympics came around and people started watching exciting sports like Handball, they didn’t continue their interest in its professional league? It’s precisely because of the lack of narrative we were given. In a sport we have to know who heroes, villains, jokers and competitive people are. Mega sport stars cultivate this personality in the public image and thus transform themselves into a character. To use footballers as an example: David Beckham is portrayed as a handsome, charitable fellow, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is portrayed as man who couldn’t care less about anyone’s opinion of him and even looks like as if he doesn’t care about the game itself. And look at the whole Tiger Woods furore, tell me that wouldn’t be out of place in a televisual soap opera?

These global personalities speak to us in profound ways. I suppose in a way sport represents a condensed version of life. In life there are no clear objectives (like put the ball in the net), no clear heroes or villains and sport offers that up for us. It is exactly like summer blockbuster films, a form of escapism from the abrasive and harsh reality of our lives. So when people say that football is “just a bunch of blokes kicking a ball around a field” they couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s so much more than that. This is where I attempt to draw my distinction concerning my argument, I’m not saying that NFL is rubbish or pointless, just that it’s mechanics and overall setup are not suited for me, and possibly anywhere else apart from America.

It is comparable to an extreme example this idea of sport narrative is the WWE, which back in my day was called the WWF, stupid pandas. The WWE borders on the sport/not sport dichotomy, but what is interesting is that there is an implied contract between viewer and sport where we both silently admit that we know the sport isn’t real, yet fans (and I was one) happily go along with the hyper-intense soap opera plot lines and equally hyper-dramatised “wrestling”. The contract is there in “normal” sports like football and NFL, but it is a lot less visible and apparent. One difference is that the sport is actually real and properly competitive, but what keeps us coming back is investment in the naturally occurring storylines (the phrase “naturally occurring” should be taken with a pinch of salt, agents can be fickle things).

The NFL works against this narrative through its fiscal model as well. The NFL draft succeeds in creating equality season by season, but when compared to the Premier League, it’s hard to build upon success. It tries to create excitement through variety, but in the end it seems that who one roots for is only incidental, if say, the Seahawks win the Super Bowl then it is likely that next year they will be stripped of their most prized assets. This economic model is similar to that used in the MLS and as a result, teams in the MLS struggle to compete on a global scale. Teams are perpetually ordinary, all that is solid melts into air. For NFL, that’s not really a problem because for now, it remains a strictly domestic affair. It does also seem strange that a form sporting communism would be so readily accepted in such a fervently capitalist society. There is an interesting, yet short, video on the economics of the NFL here

Sure, teams like Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United are near the top nearly every season because of their heritage. But it allows teams to join them in the elite stratosphere of the game, and it feels more meaningful when they do. Look at Manchester City in the 2001-02 season they were in the league below the premiership, and a decade later, they won the premier league and are fast becoming one of the sport’s global superpowers. You could say it creates somewhat of a glass ceiling, how is a team like Everton (a very good, solid club don’t get me wrong) supposed to be able to compete with the oil rich Manchester City and even, their rivals Liverpool, whose heritage and history gives them a stronger footing in terms of finance and spending power. Rather, I would say it only helps to define narratives, like the terrific one with Man City. If you don’t believe, investigate their 2011-12 title winning campaign -it involves a goal in stoppage time in the final game of the season to win the league.

In the F.A. Cup you get games with big premiership teams facing off against barely professional clubs. Hey, in the League Cup semi-final we saw one of the games of the season, not because of its footballing quality, but of its narrative power in Manchester United versus Sunderland.

For anyone that doesn’t know, let me set the scene:

Manchester United’s previous manager, Sir Alex Ferguson retired at the end of last season, he had an unprecedented level of success at the club, leading them to 13 Premier League Trophies, 5 F.A. Cup wins and winning the Champions League twice. Ferguson handpicked his successor David Moyes who, shall we say, hasn’t been doing great during his maiden voyage. For United fans, this is coming as something of a shock, for most of them, they are not used to seeing their team this vulnerable. They’re not terrible; they are still solidly in the top half of the table. So, with this in mind we come to the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. In the other semi-final, Manchester United’s rivals Manchester City beat West Ham 6-0, meaning that barring a miracle (it didn’t happen, the won 3-0 in the second leg) they would be in the final.

Manchester United have to face Sunderland. A team in the relegation zone in the league, they only just survived relegation last year and aren’t looking too good this year. The game is at Sunderland, and Manchester United didn’t play at their best, and they lost 2-1 to Sunderland after a last minute penalty to Sunderland.

Now, Sunderland must travel to Old Trafford, Manchester United’s ground, which under Ferguson’s reign was dubbed “The Theatre of Dreams”, seems a bit silly now doesn’t it? Sunderland are 2-1 up from the previous leg. And due to some weird rule that only applies to this competition (I won’t go into it) Manchester United only need to score 1 goal to win (It will take them to extra time, but not penalties). In the first half, Manchester United scored a goal and looked like business as usual. This was not the case though, United looked lacklustre in attack and more importantly, Sunderland played with vigour and spirit – something which United were lacking. We reached the full 90 minutes and extra was upon, remember, United only had to maintain their one goal advantage to win. But in the 119th minute former Manchester United right-back Phil Bardsley scored to make the aggregate score 3-2 to Sunderland, making them go through to the final. Then, in what looked like typical Man United fashion they scored in the 120th minute to take the game to penalties. After some technically poor penalties (I’m condensing obviously) Sunderland miraculously won. At Old Trafford. And they deserved it.

Sunderland players celebrate after beating Man Utd
Sunderland players celebrate after beating Man Utd

With the NFL I doubt you could get something so potent (I would willingly accept suggestions, I’m aware of stuff like the 18-1 thing) as that little and very recent story because everything in the NFL is so grounded in statistics. It may be the sport’s virtue that every play is masterfully managed and micromanaged but it is also its vice. There is little room for individual maestros to turn games on their head, and if they do so, it’s mostly down to the “play” that they were involved in. The micromanaging works against the physical and brutal “real” play of the sport.

How often do you seen this (0:17 seconds) in NFL? Was this magical dribble part of Argentina’s game plan and tactics? No, of course not.

Aside from sporting narratives, one must also consider the use and overuse of advertising in NFL. Now, I get it, despite how similar the UK and US seem, we are very different at our core. I will simplify this, for the sake of brevity but broadly, American more readily accepts capitalism and consumerism. Perhaps it’s just me being a bit of leftie, but I more often than not repulsed at advertisements.

For me, anyway, I just don’t think that advertisements work, it doesn’t matter if it’s funny or entertaining but underneath there is also an ulterior motive to get me to buy their stuff. Advertisements disingenuously try to be my friend while simultaneously tries to rob me.  But this is what corporatism thrives off; shoving stuff down my throat while request my complicity.

Adverts though, offer a unique slice of the culture of which there are broadcast. In England we have the BBC, a publicly funded television broadcaster that doesn’t have any ads. No prizes for guessing what my favourite television broadcaster is.

In America it seems that there is a huge cultural buzz surrounding the adverts during the Super Bowl. I mean, I’ve heard about the Schwarzenegger one and there’s the big controversy about ScarJo’s withdrawal as an Oxfam ambassador just so she can get paid for an advert airing at the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl then, is not just the sport with a few adverts to boot. It is shipped as whole commodity, one package of America’s of cultural power. The Super Bowl itself is an advert for America’s socio-economic and cultural values, or at least, a purported, slick vision of them.

In short, my anti-capitalist sentiments tell me that the Super Bowl is nothing more than a grandiose celebration of the America’s dominant and repressive ideology. The Super Bowl, like capitalism, exists purely by historical reinforcement and when wrapped up and presented as a gleaming example of a Utopian capitalist society, and thus, it reigns nationally supreme. The question we should further ask is why is football a global phenomenon and NFL purely a domestic pastime?

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