The NFL's suffocating popularity isn't best represented by the league's massive television ratings or revenue, but rather the commotion around what happened last month in Indianapolis. The NFL Combine, which largely features prospects running, jumping and lifting weighs, is arguably the second-biggest sports event of the month behind the Super Bowl. The NBA and NHL may be in the midst of their regular seasons, but all we can talk about is whether an anonymous college player exceeded expectations in the three-cone drill.
There's no longer an offseason in the NFL, with the league dominating our collective sports conscience 12 months per year. Whether it's free agency, off-field scandals or deflated footballs, the NFL news cycle never stops.
Take these first two weeks of March, for example. After the completion of the Combine, NFL teams had to decide whether to franchise their pending free agents by Tuesday's deadline. Then the league went back to court last Wednesday, where its attorneys argued Tom Brady's four-game suspension for allegedly tampering with footballs should be reinstated. This Wednesday, it's the official start of free agency.
Oh, and Peyton Manning will announce his retirement on March 7. News of his decision broke before most people were even awake on Sunday morning.
Roger Goodell continually says he wants the NFL to generate $25 billion in revenue by 2027. It's clear making the NFL a year-round enterprise instead of confining it to a five-month season is a big part of that plan.
One of the biggest changes the NFL made to its offseason schedule was pushing the start of the new league year from midnight to 4 p.m. ET, right at the tail end of the work day. Previously, the opening round of free agency was largely conducted while most people were asleep. But for the last several years, it's started in the late afternoon and carried all the way through primetime.
It's difficult to understand the particulars of NFL free agency. The salary cap is convoluted and the true value of players' contracts are often hidden behind incentives and guarantees. But that doesn't stop the rumor mill from capturing fans' attention. Once 4 p.m. hits on March 9, every sports network will feature wall-to-wall free agency coverage.
The free agency buzz lasts until the beginning of April, when the draft hype kicks into full gear. Six years ago, the NFL decided to move the first round of its draft to primetime on a Thursday night. The ratings increased by 30 percent in the first year and have stayed strong.
In many instances, it seems as if the NFL tries its hardest to alienate fans. From attempting to brush aside a domestic violence crisis to obfuscating the truth on concussions, the league's actions on these societal issues have been grotesque. But yet, no matter how much scorn Goodell and his clan of multi-billionaire overlords receive, the ratings keep going up.
Perhaps the best example of this was the interminable DeflateGate saga. After Goodell attempted to destroy Brady's legacy over slightly deflated footballs, interest in the Patriots reached an apex in New England. This year's season-opener between the Patriots and Steelers was the highest-rated ever, with nearly 40 percent of households in Boston tuned in to the game. Scandal doesn't push fans away from the NFL. It brings them in.
But none of it matters. We're all too infatuated with the grown men running around cones and free agent rumors to notice.