The Super Bowl will be played next weekend at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Rams will be here after they benefited from a terrible no-call near the end of their victory over the Saints in the NFC championship game. As of Friday, the NFL had not made any public comments about the controversy.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will be asked about it this week. There is no easy answer, from his perspective. Goodell can’t pretend it wasn’t a bad call because that would anger the Saints, but he also can’t give the impression that the Rams are illegitimate NFC champions.
I predict Goodell will not be able to thread that needle. I also predict that his unsatisfying response will not matter at all for the popularity of this Super Bowl or the league at large.
People like NFL football no matter what the NFL does to try to change their minds. Blown calls, endless replay reviews, no reviews at all of important decisions, tortured rules interpretations, off-field blunders — none of it matters. The NFL is a machine that cannot malfunction because of operator error.
The biggest reason for this is because its product is entertaining. The games are good (for the most part) and gambling-friendly. They feature violent collisions, which Americans like even if we pretend we don’t. There are enough games to hold our attention, but not so many that we lose interest.
The NFL couldn’t mess that up if it tried, which it sometimes seems to do. But it’s not as if the NFL’s owners could ever lose real money with their bad decisions. They have safety nets to protect them, including revenue that is shared among owners and exemption from the usual competitive pressures faced by businesses.
NFL owners are heavily subsidized by public money, from the stadiums their teams play in to the public airwaves they use. Their profits are, of course, 100 percent privatized. Congressional members accepting brib — um, contributions and business-friendly courtrooms protect the NFL from nuisances like antitrust violations and unfair labor practices.
Those internal and external circumstances mean NFL owners can trip over their own feet and land in piles of cash. It’s impossible for NFL owners to lose money and easy to make lots of it, as long as the games are good.
And the games are good. That makes the league resilient. Its customers grumble about bad calls on the field and threaten to boycott because of decisions made off of it, only to eventually settle in to watch more NFL football.
Some fans say that bad officiating, like that no-call in New Orleans, ruins their enjoyment of the games. They say this while tweeting about the NFL, watching and listening to shows about the NFL and talking to friends and co-workers about the NFL.
Other fans say they’ve soured on the league because of its stances on social issues. When those topics enter the NFL’s entertainment bubble, the league inevitably responds in the worst possible way.
The NFL managed to make everyone mad with its ham-fisted response to its players protesting police brutality during the national anthem, and the subsequent authoritarian demagoguery from the White House. The league bungled the investigation of, and response to, a domestic-violence assault by a player captured on video. It had a pay-for-patriotism deal with the Department of Defense and admitted to a link between football and brain disease after previously denying it.
Such controversies inspire critics to predict the NFL’s demise. That was especially true of the anthem issue, which carried over to the start of the season. And then the NFL had a spike in television viewership during the 2018 season, ending a two-year decline, with its games representing 46 of the top 50 shows.
The league had an exciting season in 2018. There were a record number of touchdowns and close games. The high quality of play carried over into the postseason.
The Super Bowl promises more of the same. The Patriots still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Rams have anointed coaching wunderkind Sean McVay’s high-scoring offense.
Despite all the hand-wringing about the New Orleans no-call, I’m guessing this Super Bowl will enjoy sky-high viewership. The high probability of an entertaining game matters more than frustration about that or any other blown call throughout the season. Cut through the noise and the NFL is all about the product — bad officiating notwithstanding, that Saints-Rams game was really good, after all.
In fact, the beauty of it for the NFL is that in the end complaining about the NFL only helps to promote the NFL. If people are hooked on the product, then negative publicity is like a dosage of dopamine. The NFL has a product so good that it can’t ruin it.