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Decade Of Change: Eliminating Mediocrity In America's Favorite Sport

I could try to explain just how awesome pro football is, but it’d just pale in comparison to the way Michael Tunison (KSK, Deadspin, etc.) explained it in his outstanding book The Football Fan’s Manifesto, in which his first words read as follows: "Other Major Sports Are Inherently Inferior to Pro Football and Therefore Unworthy of Our Time."

It’s true. Football is the best. It’s undisputed most popular sport in North America; as such, however, it’s subjected to a bit more criticism because of its cultural standing. The NFL is a far cry from perfection. The league has deteriorated to the point where mediocrity can merit a playoff berth, rules and policies grow more complex and perplexing, and money trumps product and even fan support. The NFL can easily fix a lot of its issues, though. Here’s how.

Fix basic competition issues

NFL football is very much a watered-down product these days. The gap between 11-5 and 5-11 is narrower than ever, but the sea of teams between those records is massive, year in and year out. This isn’t parity; it’s inconsistent, at times unwatchable football. Three ways to help fix this:

Create and maintain a developmental minor league. The NBA, NHL and MLB all have minor or developmental leagues in which teams can work with prospects in competitive atmospheres. The NFL does not. It’s also a sport that features a position (quarterback) that is more complex than any single position in any other sport, and is absolutely critical to consistent success in the league. The vast majority of NFL teams are in constant search for a franchise quarterback, and that type of player is so scarce that resources put into finding those types of players are at an all-time high. Meanwhile, guys like Tony Romo, Kurt Warner, and even Tom Brady come out of left field and dominate the game. Talent goes bust all the time, and that’s because there isn’t a developmental venue to hone it in the first place. The league needs more talent, and a place to cultivate it.

Shorten the pre-season. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been pondering lengthening the regular season to accommodate playing games in foreign locales to boost the league’s international popularity. That’s fine and dandy – even though the players’ union is averse to playing more games without more money – but the more you play, the more likely you’ll incur injuries in this game. The league can offset some of these injury concerns, particularly for critical depth players, by shortening the pre-season. Aside from rookies and young players who don’t get much value out of four meaningless football games anyway, pre-season football benefits no one, particularly those who don’t play in order to stay healthy. (It’s also beyond irritating that fans have to wait around six weeks for meaningful football to be played from the outset of training camps.)

Change overtime rules. Frankly, it’s ridiculous that NFL games can be decided by a coin flip. In 2009, five of the NFL’s 12 overtime games ended on the first possession of the extra session. That number was similar in 2008, when 63% of teams that won the coin toss in OT went on to win the game. The NFL recently decided not to change overtime rules when players expressed safety issues; player safety is clearly important, but so is fairness. An OT format in which each team is guaranteed at least one possession would be wildly popular with fans, and much fairer to the competitive balance of the league.

Stop pissing off fans

Just like any form of entertainment – which, ultimately, is what the NFL needs to be to survive – fans need to be happy, and willing to open their wallets. As such, it might be prudent for the league to stop doing stupid things that irritate fans. Two quick examples come to mind.

The NFL Network. It’s the league’s network, so it’s obviously going to be a part of the football-viewing equation, but nobody can watch it! Get. The. NFL. Network. On. Basic. Cable. What makes matters worse is that the NFLN is actually a quality product – but the majority of general NFL fans outside of the markets of the teams participating in an NFLN game can’t watch, and that’s more than a little sad. The ability to watch chunks of those broadcasts online helps, and that’s an idea to pursue, as well, particularly for fans of teams that fall victim to the league’s sloppy blackout rules.

Abolish PSLs. Shiny new stadiums require shiny private seating licenses for the right to purchase season tickets. This system exists to offset the costs of putting gigantic, over-the-top TV screens over your football field. If your average middle-class dude wants to sacrifice a little lifestyle for ten Sundays of NFL football, he shouldn’t have to bleed out the rear to pay for a PSL just so he can buy the high-quality season tickets he’s had for 30 years. The league and its teams make enough money. It’s a big sacrifice, but continued loyalty to the fans that built the league to prominence makes it a worthy sacrifice.

Yeah, the NFL has other big problems. The league needs a rookie wage scale; the petty uniform violations are rather ridiculous; the Pro Bowl is boring; oh, and there might be a lockout in 2011. The league and the players’ union should probably get on that one, because crappy football is better than no football. But a few quick fixes to improve league talent and competitive balance, as well as to re-connect with its vast fan base - that’s where the NFL should focus its attentions as well.