You will never know anything about the NFL, Aaron Gordon writes, because you will never be able to watch.
Watching an NFL game on television is like omitting every other sentence from a book. It turns a wonderfully complex, perfectly choreographed, eclectic dance into two sloppy college kids grinding in a club. Every route combination, every action by every player on the offense is intricately designed to leave the ball-carrier unaccounted for. Every defensive assignment, pre-snap adjustment, and coverage disguise comprises a puzzle without any missing pieces. The obsession of broadcasting the ball, only the ball, always the ball is tantamount to robbing the game of its beauty. It eradicates the game from the game itself. The NFL is hiding its own game from us.
There’s no more coveted package in television than the right to broadcast live NFL games. In the last decade, football games comprised a majority of the most-viewed programs each year. The league’s popularity can only continue to grow now that labor peace has been reinstated. The major networks rewarded the NFL with a ten-year extension of their rights packages which, added together, will net the league $7 billion annually from TV rights alone, more than the total revenue of every other North American sports league.
Such a massive sum poses the question: what are the networks really buying? Surely each network doesn’t generate $1.9 billion in advertising revenue annually from NFL broadcasting. The NFL is notorious for always producing more—more scoring, more stars, more camera angles. But, this is all in lieu of the most important perspective, the one that shows us everything: the All-22.
The All-22 is footage captured from two cameras in the rafters of every stadium: one in the end zone and one above the 50 yard line. Together, they provide a perspective of the game fans will literally never lay eyes on. Unless they watch ESPN, NBC, CBS, or Fox, of course.
At the core, the networks are supposed to show what’s happening. Its understandable how this gets boiled down to following the ball at all times. Seemingly, the NFL should just release the All-22 at some point so we can become further obsessed with the game, resulting to the NFL doing what it does best: commodifying our obsession. Unfortunately, our collective interest probably won’t equal a 7 percent annual revenue increase. TV networks are willing to pay $7 billion for the right to show NFL games and be the gatekeepers of NFL knowledge.
We sometimes forget the constraints NFL statisticians operate within due to the emergence of advanced statistical analysis from the likes of Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats. Both of these sites calculate advanced metrics that assess team and player performances by viewing the same footage you watch every Sunday. The NFL doesn’t allow Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats, or anyone else access to the All-22 footage. In November, Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, described All-22 as “proprietary NFL coaching information.”
This account of All-22 distribution doesn’t align with those of Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders and Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats. Schatz told me, “Nobody uses [All-22] except for NFL Films, ESPN NFL Matchup, and Monday Night Football. The rest of us don’t have access to it.” Burke agreed, adding, “… perhaps some CBS/Fox/NBC types too on a limited basis.” Apparently, the access of that footage extends to those writing billion dollar checks.
Waxing poetic about the beauty of NFL strategy understates the true market value of All-22. Without that angle, the effectiveness of coaching, schemes, and quarterback decision-making is a secret left to insiders. From his extensive experience analyzing television footage—the only footage he can access—Burke believes, “Using standard TV angles makes it very difficult to analyze plays—reconstruct the blocking, gap, pattern, and coverage assignments.”
All-22 would marginalize many of the lazy theoretical conjectures we frequently hear from TV analysts. We wouldn’t have to pontificate about covering a deep-threat wide receiver and theorize about its impact on his teammates. Schatz would love to get his hands on All-22 for this reason: “It would allow us to measure wide receivers not only by the passes that are thrown to them but also by whether they are open on passes NOT thrown to them, or by how often they draw double coverage that frees up other receivers.”
These are basic strategic elements of football, and even people who make a living analyzing the game can’t completely analyze these factors; that is, they can’t completely do their job. In fact, it’s not possible to properly assess a wide receiver without this information, since a receiver won’t be targeted far more often than he will be. To assert the effectiveness of a player without seeing what he does for roughly 75 percent of the game isn’t analysis; its guesswork. (For the record, I think Burke and Schatz do tremendous, important work. I just wish they could do more.)
Here lies the precise reason why we don’t have All-22 access. We would all be experts. If Aaron Schatz or Brian Burke could pay $100 a year for access, as the NFL recently proposed in a survey to fans, then Aaron Schatz and Brian Burke would know just as much about football as the major television networks that will be paying almost $2 billion a year. The networks extract a lot of value from airing live games, but they extract even more from all the programming they air about the games.
ESPN fills much more than three hours a week with that $1.9 billion, between two hours of Monday Night Countdown, one hour of NFL 32 and NFL Live per day, two hours of Sunday NFL Countdown, and countless hours of SportsCenter coverage (not to mention the NFL Matchup programming that amounts to an All-22 film session). In fact, one could even say the game is only a tiny portion of that value. Likewise, with the launch of NBC Sports on January 2nd as a major competitor to ESPN, you can expect a comparative amount of NFL coverage with NBC. Why would anybody watch all that coverage if they could simply watch the game tape themselves? Why would you even turn on the NFL Network if you could download All-22 footage without listening to Steve Mariucci?
Burke shares a similar outlook: “From what I understand, the NFL fears a cottage industry of critics. The film would allow the media and amateurs to criticize players and coaches with a sense of authority they wouldn’t otherwise have.” Of course, amateurs and the media already criticize coaches and players relentlessly, but they lack complete knowledge of the plays because we simply can’t see them, rendering all our criticisms less than valid.
In a league that always touts its unparalleled access—live interviews, game day audio, close up HD slow motion cameras, even its own magazine—we never actually get to see the game itself. All elements of the NFL’s coverage are lights and flashes to distract you from the fact that you know nothing about the NFL, that you will never know anything about the NFL, and that you must watch the networks that pay billions of dollars a year to even get a glimpse of the NFL. Press conferences, interviews, sound bites, and quotes are all disguised, architected contraptions of how the NFL wants to be perceived, not how it is. Nate Jackson at Deadspin uncovers the violence the NFL is hiding, but the NFL hides a lot more than violence. All-22 is the real, beautiful NFL. And we will never see it. Instead, just keep your eyes on the ball.