While her presence helps, the NFL doesn’t need Taylor Swift to keep its stranglehold on the public.
It’s the NFL’s version of the Final Four. Championship weekend. Their preamble before the Constitution that is the Super Bowl.
Entering Sunday’s set of games, numbers came out. Numbers that would set not only the stage but a new precedence on what this generation’s NFL has recently become. Over 32 million watched last weekend’s Texans-Ravens game, an average of 37.5 million were locked-in at some point to the Packers-Niners game. The Buccaneers-Lions viewership averaged just over 40 million people, while the Chiefs-Bills on prime time Sunday went down as the most watched divisional playoff game in television history with an average — average! — viewership of 50.3 million and a peak in the second half of 56.2 million.
The four-game divisional playoff weekend, in total, had the highest ratings since 2015. The only two things close to competing with the NFL for popularity: Pickleball and Taylor Swift. And Taylor right now has put her whole self (and her following) in the NFL.
So why if the Super Bowl historically has been the most-watched single television program in America do these numbers leading into the conference championships mean so much? Because the SB is about the spectacle, the pageantry, the trappings. These recent numbers (no disrespect to Swift) are about football, about the NFL, and about — when put together — what they’ve come to mean.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the lack of perceived interest from the NFL in honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and all he did, and the role he played in making America great for the first time. The column wasn’t a shot at the NFL, it was a shot at how the NFL functions — and to a degree what it represents. How to many, though, its actions as a league seemed comfortable aligning itself with a particular “mood” one side of the country chooses to exist in.
But damn, those numbers! Not only do they not lie, they’re rewriting the current narrative. Only seven or so years removed from what would be considered their modern-day low in both audience and engagement, the NFL has risen above a particular perceived perception to take America back.
As to how and why: Social media. Politics. Temper of the country. Rebellion. Legalization of gambling. The Las Vegas presence. Add to those the subliminal adroitness of us every waking morning having some form of the game being indoctrinated into our days in the form of full-fledged football programs masking themselves as “sports” shows.
Get Up, The Pat McAfee Show, The Carlton Show, Boomer and Gio, Good Morning Football and First Take whenever they’re talking about the Cowboys. Now add how three of the four co-hosts on Fox’s Undisputed are former NFL legends replacing another NFL legend who went to ESPN to become a permanent guest on Mondays and Tuesdays with Stephen A, and how one-third of ESPN+’s other morning show, Unsportsmanlike, co-host Chris Canty, is too a former NFL football player. One more? Michael Strahan and Nate Burleson, two co-hosts on America’s four national broadcast morning shows, Good Morning America and CBS Mornings, two of the most-watched morning shows on broadcast television in the country, are both former NFL players.
If you reread that paragraph without reading anything else, you will understand how every single morning through just the medium of television we start our days being connected to some form of football. It’s literally become inescapable. It’s intentional. It’s genius. It’s how the NFL reclaimed America and how it reestablished itself as this country’s second religion.
In an Associated Press story written in October, NFL writer Rob Maaddi opened with this line: “The king of American sports wants to take over the world.” How non-hyperbole was that? Up 7% in viewing during the regular season, divisional playoffs up 10% from last season’s games and the one of the largest ratings for total viewership ever on record. The league is beyond Teflon. A requiem of reality.
In explaining the definition and differentiation between overrated and overhyped, FS1’s Keyshawn Johnson said it perfectly: “You know how the media is when they get ahold of something that they want to push to the next level, they’re going to sell it to you. Sell it to you with the best of ‘em. The NFL along with that, they(‘re) gonna sell it to you.”
The NFL has diabolically mastered the art of low-profile overhyping and inconspicuous overselling what they are in such a brilliant way we don’t even recognize or realize what they’ve done. Ingenious them, dumb us. The greatest rebranding of our lifetimes.
There are four things in life: What something should be, what it could be, what it ain’t. The fourth: What it is. Last weekend, the NFL moved into a new phase of its place in America. It’s fair to say last weekend is when the NFL officially re-became America. Has this country become pro-NFL in a totally new way? That answer would be a resounding, “Yes.” The problem: There are many answers why inside of that answer.