I have an original Darrell Green jersey, circa 1998 or so, that I wear for good luck or for old school “Skin’s” pride. But mostly, I wear it to prove that I am a true fan, from WAY back. I believe that I am the backbone of the NFL fandom: the tried and true, loyal to a fault, favorite team insignia buying fan. The NFL is the most popular and successful sport in the US, and that is primarily because of people just like me.
At least, that was what I thought until about 24 hours ago. Now, I believe that I am a dying breed. A shrinking population that the NFL no longer seeks to target directly, instead they simply placate us as our generation passes by. Maybe that seems a bit harsh, but hang in there with me a few moments.
Driving home from my annual fantasy football draft, I received a revelation while chuckling at a person’s drafting choices. Instead of brushing them off as a “wannabe” or fake fan, I realized that maybe, just maybe, that person is EXACTLY who the NFL is in need of these days. The thought came to me as I crossed a mountain on the way home that night. It seems that the bread and butter of today’s NFL fandom are the fair weather fantasy football players.
Don’t get me wrong, I have played fantasy football for a dozen years. I have 2 leagues, and take pride in my 3 championships. I LOVE fantasy football. One of my favorite days of the year is draft day, and not the one in April.
But it seems to be clear that the popularity, growth, and overwhelming success of today’s NFL lies not with me, but within the casual fans of fantasy football.
For years, I have made fun of these people. They confused players, teams, and references. Their lack of history reared it’s wonderful head at the best of times and they are always great for a laugh. I could trace my heritage of fandom through memories. I watched as Joe Theismans’ leg exploded. I remember Doug Williams being asked how long he had been a black quarterback. The “Fun Bunch”, the “Hog’s”, RFK rocking and singing “Hail to the Redskins”. I am a FAN. Hear me roar, I guess.
To me, these new folks seem to have no team loyalty, no history, no panache. They float from team to team with the wind. They could tell you who was on the last Gatorade commercial, but had no idea who Ronnie Lott was. The Ice Bowl, “the catch”, the “immaculate reception” have no importance to them.
And these fair weather fans are a frustrating breed. They throw names around like old pro’s, but if you looked close, they are just reciting to names off ESPN, or from their Fantasy Football magazine. They are like locusts, simply devouring all of the information they can get their hands on, even if they are not sure what Nickel coverage means.
In playing fantasy football, they generally are the curveball team: unpredictable, unprecedented, and dangerous. They buck the conventional. They win. A lot.
But what makes them so important to today’s NFL are their habits. They do not fret in buying an RGIII jersey for the draft one year, and then showing up in a Dez Bryant original the next. They will carry on for an entire year about the success and failures of the Packers, and then speak with intelligence and informed data about the 49er’s the next year. You see, their purchasing and watching allegiance fall’s not to a single traditional team, but to THEIR team. Their fantasy football team. Their “team” is comprised of their players. Ever changing, every varied, and with age old rivalries forgotten.
While I will make sure to watch every Redskins game this year, I am not put off if I miss a Tampa Bay Buc’s game, or the Monday Night snooze fest between the Jets and Rams. But these new fans, they will watch them all. With interest. Real rooting interest.
They are tracking their players, their opponents players, and watching 3 games at once. True, they may not catch every play of a single game, but they catch far more football viewing than I. And from this wide cast net, new fans are born. They go from casual to obsessive viewers. Their Sunday’s become a blur of laptops and remote controls. Their budgets change as they acquire enough NFL gear to fill their closet.
Meanwhile, I search for that replica Russ Grimm jersey, holding out to find it in the right size for the right price. My scope is narrow. I am a singular fan of an older time. In the multi-task mania of a world we live in, my die hard fandom is a cute novelty.
You can even view this in today’s presentation of players. Peyton Manning and Cam Newton are both in a new line of commercials for Gatorade that feature the players pranking unsuspecting customers. The players walk in without any form of NFL identification on, and we watch the transformative look of the customer as they realize who these people are. The target audience is the casual NFL fan, who recognize and know these players even without their jerseys. And that is a tall feat for players who make a living behind a face-mask and pads.
So I tip my symbolic hat to you, new NFL fan. Because of you I have been afforded new levels of interaction with my team. It is your fandom that opens doors of information that I never thought possible. You have driven me to watch the bigger NFL picture, and to fall in love with the game all over again. While I will always live and die with every Skin’s loss, I have taken to the habits of following the Red Zone channel to track all of the action. In short, your ways are becoming my ways. And the joke is now on me.
Football is a great game. A game of gladiators, brains and courage. I ask you to treat it with care, to embrace its history, and for the love of almighty, please learn that you simply CAN NOT wear a Green Bay hat and a Bears shirt at the same time.