NFL cash cow not producing Grade A goods

November 25, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

The National Football League is a fat, arrogant cash cow that is convinced nothing can go wrong - not unlike Rome before the fall. The NFL certainly isn't going to fall any time soon, if ever. But it could stand to stop strutting and crowing and take stock. There are more than a few problems inside the house.

Outward appearances are all sweet peaches and buttermilk. The demand for tickets has never been greater. Television ratings shame those for other sports. Cities, such as ours, are down on their knees clamoring for teams. Many games are thrilling spectacles. There really is no reason for the league not to be fat and arrogant.

When I look at the NFL, though, I see major problems, a product in need of overhaul. I root with all my fruit and fiber for an expansion team to land in Camden Yards and bring life to the fall and winter here - I hear one more Mickey Tettleton rumor, and I'm wearing earplugs but, at the same time, I wonder how long the NFL can ignore its problems without losing fans.

When I look at the NFL, for instance, I see mediocrity running rampant. Only 10 of 28 teams have winning records right now. That's shameful. Except for the San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and maybe Chicago Bears, everyone is about the same - not too good, decent at best. The Redskins are the Cowboys are the Jets are the Steelers.

Pete Rozelle wanted to achieve parity with graded scheduling and the draft, and the system has worked except for those couple of teams that rose above it. The result is that three-fourths of the games are between average teams hoping only to make the playoffs, understanding that they can't reach the Super Bowl. The fans don't seem to care right now. But how long will they buy it?

It's no surprise, though. When I look at the NFL, I see a league that cares little about its fans. A league that cared would not schedule night games that routinely run past midnight. A league that cared would not use a schedule that has top division rivals playing twice in three weeks in October, draining much of the drama from the pennant race. (See Giants-Redskins 1990.)

A league that cared would not take advantage of its customers by rendering its regular season meaningless. It didn't used to be that way, but now, as the size of the playoff field has increased from eight to 10 to 12 teams this year, you can lose half your games and still make the postseason. Games such as today's Giants-Eagles are terrific on the tube, but they don't mean much. Both will make the playoffs.

When I look at the NFL, I see loyal fans in many cities being ruined by bad management. We know about Bill Bidwell and Bob Irsay. Art Modell is ruining a good thing in Cleveland. Vic Klam doesn't exactly have the Pats going for the gold. The Lions, Bucs, Falcons and Chargers change directions every few years without getting- better. There oughta be a law.

But think about it. When I look at the NFL, I see a league in which, at the bottom line, there is no incentive to win. Each team gets 1/28 of the television revenue no matter if it goes 16-0 or 0-16. Truly, it is more economical for a team not to make the Super Bowl. Saves expenses. You can't help but wonder how many owners really care about winning if it doesn't fatten their wallets. You can't prove a thing, of course. But you wonder.

When I look at the NFL, I see a league in which players are becoming increasingly anonymous. Coaches substitute six and seven players on some downs, depending on situations, and the result is you have no idea who is on the field much of the time. It is almost impossible to follow a hot matchup. Identity is the way to build fans, and the NFL is failing. Substitutions should be limited.

As well, there is legislation against end-zone dances, as if they harmed a fly. Why the league would be against this absolutely escapes me, except that individuality clearly is out. Uniform regulations are more strict than those in the military, and, worse, coaches and owners have been told in harsh terms not to criticize referees and each other. In other words: no genuine emotion, please. No personal statements. Just canned stuff.

When I look at the NFL, I see a league that needs new blood pumping through it. It needs new teams; look at how expansion pumped up the NBA. It needs to go back to some basics, get rid of instant replay, in-the-grasp and other rules that break the natural flow of a game. It needs to realign along geographical lines, giving fans games they want. There is no reason, for instance, why Dallas and Houston don't play twice a year.

When I look at the NFL, I see a league with a great game that needs tinkering, a league that can make a profit without trying, a league that is stagnant, slow to move, homogenous, mediocre, autocratic. I also see a league I desperately want in my backyard. And I wonder why they're arrogant.

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