MANHATTAN — The brand new NFL Experience in Times Square is not a football museum. I make the mistake of calling it that while talking to Danny Boockvar, the president of the whole endeavor, who’s walking me through the fourth floor of the 40,000 square-foot space.
“It’s purposely not meant to be a deep exhibit and museum,” he says, shaking his head. “I like to think of it as Disney meets the Hall of Fame meets Dave and Buster’s, with a liquor license in Times Square.”
Boockvar is an enthusiastic guy wearing a quilted vest, a wool blazer, and reminds me of a prep school headmaster who’s just closed a particularly lucrative capital campaign. He’s on the board of New York City’s tourism department, and when he heard about this project in June of 2016, he left his job as the CEO of New York Cruise Lines to head it up. The NFL and Cirque du Soleil had been planning the project for about a year and a half at that point.
As we walk through the room, Boockvar tells me that while I have entered as a fan, I will soon become a player, and then I will leave as a champion. I will do all of this by watching a movie in a next-level IMAX-ish theater, participating in a mock combine/practice hybrid, and looking at the Lombardi Trophy in a room where the carpet is designed to resemble a football field littered with confetti.
Boockvar and I pass a case containing a cheerleading uniform, one of a few displays of actual memorabilia. Most of the action on this floor takes place on screens inlaid on tables set up throughout the space. I hit a button on one to tell it I’m a Patriots fan. Highlights from recent years pop up, and I hit play on the video of Malcolm Butler’s game-winning interception from the 2015 Super Bowl. I feel a degree of the same excitement and incredulity that I did when I saw it live in 2015.
“This is for both the avid fan, casual fan, domestic fan, and international visitors,” Boockvar says, gesturing at a family speaking what I think is Dutch nearby. The place is pretty empty because it’s not officially open yet — there’s been a soft opening, but the big kick-off event is two days away.
This non-museum is like the NFL itself: Brightly colored, loud, stimulating, and a surprising mix of gaudy and beautiful. The project has been in the works for three years, but as the storm of PR crises rage on — pick your poison: CTE, Jerry Jones v. Roger Goodell, backlash against players protesting social justice — the timing of the opening seems like a shiny new toy the league is hoping will serve as a distraction. That, and a way to keep consumers engaged and spending money in the offseason at locations away from stadiums. They want to hook anyone they can get.
“I mean, look,” Boockvar continues, “whether they’ve ever watched a football game before or not, this is like the Thrillist version of the Hall of Fame. It’s entertaining, fun, engaging, and digestible.”
The 4D movie that Boockvar promises will “knock my socks off” is about to start, so he leads me into the theater. I ask what 4D is. It’s ... well, Boockvar doesn’t want to ruin it for me, so he won’t go into details. But he does say that it’s more like a ride than a movie: There are screens on three out of the four walls, the seats in the theater move, and there will be wind. He tells me to turn my seat up to the “max” setting. I sit down and oblige.
The movie begins with a series of warnings that could also, I suppose, be applied to an actual NFL game — you might experience motion sickness, you could have a seizure, it will be very loud, and pregnant women should probably sit this one out.
My seat starts to shake and my body tenses up as the Packers run out of the tunnel to take the field. NFL Films is a partner in this whole thing, so there’s lots of “never-before-seen” footage from the point of view of players. My chair buzzes, slowly at first, as Aaron Rodgers looks for an open receiver. The vibrations ramp up as he pulls his arm back to throw, then suddenly the whole seat shifts, tilting me forward. Rodgers releases the ball and my seat whips me to the side, slamming me into the armrest as the quarterback gets tackled by a defender who’s charged at him out of the blue on the front screen. Video of the stands on the side screens show fans screaming and cheering.
Montage after montage of hits and sacks and throws and touchdowns take us through the regular season as I’m yanked around in time to the action. When I told a friend a few days ago that I was coming here, he’d said, “The NFL Experience? What, do they just slam your head against a wall for a few hours?” He was joking, clearly, but it kind of feels like that’s what’s happening right now.
“This is probably the first thing [off the field] I’ve been a part of that gave me goosebumps,” the Giants wide receiver Brandon Marshall will say when I talk to him at the end of the visit. The NFL Experience wanted a player to do some interviews, and since Marshall is injured and has some free time, he’s the guy they got.
“The anticipation, that anxiety that you feel in the theater, like ‘What’s happening next?’ That’s real. Once in my career I was in a scramble and literally it felt like all 22 guys on the field were on top of me. I freaked out. It can be the longest 30 seconds of your life.”
The film takes us onto the playoffs. “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays through the speakers and my seat quakes as fighter jets fly overhead. Music that sounds like a mashup of the Games of Thrones opening credits and the NFL on FOX gets louder. The patriotic display is overt and overwhelming — I feel like I’m watching the football equivalent of a propaganda film from World War II, or an ad for the Marines that runs during games.
The film ends before anyone makes it to the Super Bowl, but it’s done its job: According to Boockvar, I have officially become a player, and it’s time to move on to the mock equipment room and practice facility a floor below.
There’s a vertical jump in here, as well as dummy blocking, an interactive playcalling situation with Jon Gruden (that was filmed especially for this!), a build-your-own-trading-card station, and a place where you can throw a football at a screen to a virtual wide receiver. Despite the fact that I think I’ve blown out my knee as I jump in boots, and that I’ve only made the practice squad with my weak showing against the dummy, I’m having a blast. Playing football is fun. I delight in throwing spirals to a pixilated Gronk, who catches two and misses one, and isn’t to blame for the latter.
I have not performed exceptionally well, but as I walk down the stairs and to the final floor, I have won the Super Bowl nonetheless. The confetti hanging from the ceiling is the Patriots’ colors, but it will change each year according to which team is the current champion. There’s a display of Super Bowl rings from year to year, which have gotten increasingly ostentatious, as well as copies of tickets. A few decades ago, a seat went for $12. Last year, the one displayed on the wall cost $1,500.
I am officially a champion. I walk through “the media tunnel” and enter the bar and restaurant area that overlooks Times Square. It will serve rotating offerings of specific dishes from stadiums, and will be — the league hopes — a place you can watch the game on Thursday nights.
While the informational aspect felt a bit too thin for actual fans, the drills were enjoyable no matter how much or how little you know about the game. I can see where if you’re a football-obsessed kid, or a family that won’t be going to a game anytime soon, this would be a cool, behind-the-scenes look. Or if you’re on vacation with time to kill in midtown. Here, the NFL is saying to foreign tourists, is America.
I just can’t shake the fact that the theme-park portion isn’t a simulation of a ride, it’s a simulation of the hits players’ bodies endure (and evidence of the 100 percent injury rate). Dawn Hudson, the NFL’s chief marketing officer, will tell me on the phone a day later that it’s more than that— it’s about running, juking, throwing. She says that as someone who didn’t play football, getting to experience a big person coming at you in real time was eye-opening.
It was. On television and even in the stands, watching football isn’t so visceral. Here, however, getting thrown around in the seats, it was impossible to ignore and honestly a little alarming. The NFL and Cirque du Soleil know what buttons to push to elicit reaction and emotion. They knew to show me the Butler interception, to kick up the music there, release some fake snow here. I’m just not sure they intended it all to worry me more than pump me up.
Correction: This article originally stated that NFL Experience president Danny Boockvar described the experience as being like "Thriller." Boockvar actually described it as being like "Thrillist."