Release of NFL schedule is an event
It's a testament to how popular the NFL has become that the unveiling of the schedule is one of the year's most anticipated days, writes Mark Kreidler.
And the winner is ... well, tell you what: It's the late Pete Rozelle, in a rout. And why? Because Rozelle's consuming vision for the National Football League, that it would become not only the preeminent sport in America but also the perfect synthesis of entertainment and marketing, has been fully realized.
And I can support that argument in two words:
ESPN breaks down the entire 2006 NFL schedule with two special broadcasts Thursday:
• SportsCenter NFL Schedule Release Special, hosted by Mike Tirico, live from 2-4 p.m. ET, ESPN
Oh, it's happening today. Watch this very Web site. Children will laugh. Adults will weep. The NFL's creators will come down from the mount with the announcement that all of America has been waiting for, 17 weeks of sporting Nirvana, broken down into time, location and broadcast partner, chiseled into a few lovely stones. And all will feel right with the world again.
Not even Rozelle, with his public-relations background and his incredible gift of promotion, would have dared to dream that the NFL's biggest days of the year would ultimately line up like this: Super Bowl, Draft Day, Opening Sunday and ... Schedule Release Day.
But it makes sense, doesn't it? It's all cut from the same cloth. It's all about who ultimately plays whom, and when, and how much it's worth.
If only we could figure out how to get down a bet on what date the Eagles-Giants game will be, we'd be made complete. But it isn't half-bad as it is.
And now, with ESPN in the fray, nothing seems beyond reach in terms of promotion. Count on Schedule Release Day to be written into the Holy Tabulature of Programming, somewhere between the X Games Opening Ceremony and Mel Kiper Jr.'s new prime-time special, "So Slow In the 40 He Can't Catch Grief." (Let's face it, it isn't sports until ESPN says it is.)
Of course, this type of nuttiness befits the NFL at almost every turn. You know you've got a product being obsessed over when sports fans are willing to spend weeks debating Brett Favre's future, as if there were a significant question yet to be answered as Favre "contemplates" what to do. (Note to Packers fans: He threw 29 interceptions last year, and you're still a rebuilding team. Nothing changed. That ain't mystery, that's hysteria.)
You know you're on the right track in terms of marketing when the commissioner of your league decides to step down ... and the U.S. secretary of state gets lined up as a possible replacement. In the end, Condi Rice said she wasn't interested in going for the job. Something about having to deal with too many politicians and glad-handers. Doesn't she know she'd get to be on "NFL Prime Time" if she'd just say yes?
On the other mitt, schedules do matter. The placement of a key game at a certain point on the calendar can turn a team's season one way or the other, sometimes irrevocably. The divisional games matter. The home-road breakdown matters. If the Raiders get the Broncos and Chargers on the road in back-to-back weekends, that matters, and not just because it gives the Al Davis Conspiracy Club something to chat about. Waiting for the schedule makes people nervous.
By "people," naturally I mean coaches and bookies. Owners mostly count the house, and the rest of SportWorld isn't legally required to care. But, listen, give it some cool graphics and a rhythmic backing beat, and you've got yourself the makings of a production.
Rozelle was way out in front on all of this. He understood decades ago that football could succeed only if it was marketed in an unending series of ever more cataclysmic events. Pete liked the guys flying into the stadium via jet packs for the first Super Bowl, and he loved getting the networks in bidding wars for his product. "Monday Night Football" may not have been his idea, but it almost certainly was dead center in terms of the kind of exposure and identity Rozelle wanted to establish for his product.
And that's what it is, a product. It's a good product, pretty sturdy, most recently anchored by another labor agreement between ownership and rank and file (or, as we know them, billionaire and millionaire). It is solid entertainment. Pete Rozelle brought it to one level and Paul Tagliabue raised it another few notches, with ownership and the corporate suits in happy participatory mode all along.
Now comes the ultimate statement of success for a league: It can make the unveiling of its flipping schedule into an event to which people of ordinary goodwill actually pay attention. It's the closest thing to magic yet.
Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at email@example.com
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