For the first time this season Thursday night, a football game that anyone actually wants to watch will appear on the NFL Network. The schedule-maker hit a home run. The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, both 10-1, meet in Dallas, with the winner holding the top seed in the NFC, which means home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if they hang onto it.
It would have been the Game of the Season most seasons, though this year it doesn't have quite the same pregame buildup as the Week 9 Game of the Century between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, both undefeated at the time.
The big difference between that game and this one is that just about everyone in the United States could watch that one from their living room couch. Only people in greater Cleveland or Houston or without working televisions were shut out.
This time around, people who want to watch the game and who live in the 75 million or so households without the NFL Network are going to have to find their way to sports bars or pretend they like their neighbors who have it.
The Colts beat the Atlanta Falcons on Thanksgiving night in the NFL Network's first game this year. You were sleeping off the tryptophan.
As you no doubt know if you care, the NFL is in a protracted whizzing match with the Time-Warner and Comcast cable companies over carriage of the NFL Network. The league wants to charge upward of $7 per household per year, which is a lot in that racket, and have the network be carried on the basic tier, as it is by some cable companies and the satellite providers Dish Network and DirecTV.
Time-Warner and Comcast, arguing that the NFL Network is a niche channel, want it confined to a premium tier, so that the only people who have to pay the premium for it are those who want to watch it. The NFL counters that football fans shouldn't have to pay for premium sports channels they don't want just to get the NFL Network. It's a standoff.
The league's demand for a spot on the basic tier is inconsistent with its strategy regarding the out-of-market package, Sunday Ticket, which is limited to DirecTV.
On the one hand, the NFL wants its product widely available, on the basic tier, and it's not above ginning up a phony grass-roots-style Web site, iwantnflnetwork.com to make the populist point that Americans deserve access to their football.
On the other, it wants to restrict access, which it does by limiting the Sunday Ticket to DirecTV -- a privilege for which DirecTV pays a pretty premium.
Tamping down the supply side of the consumer equation has obvious benefits, as the Boston Red Sox and all those other baseball teams that have built "intimate" stadiums know, but artificially limiting access eventually gets enough people angry that it creates a backlash.
When the Red Sox are sold out, fans more or less throw up their hands and say, "There are only 39,000 seats. If I want to go, I have to pay top dollar." But if the Sox closed off the top deck like the Oakland A's, who draw poorly in a huge stadium, do and said, "Sorry, there are only 19,000 seats now and tickets start at $500," they'd sell them all and make more money, but there'd be rioting. Which is bad for business.
The DirecTV deal isn't as blatant as that, but I think the NFL's opposite-strategy demand for basic tier status for the Network lays bare its method, which is: "We want our fans to have access! That is, as long as we can make a few extra bucks. And as long as we can't make a few extra bucks by restricting access."
At some point, I think, or maybe I just hope, enough people will think it through and realize that the NFL's policies are blatantly anti-fan, and there will be enough negative publicity and even lost business that the NFL will have to rethink its approach to television beyond its contracts with the broadcast networks and ESPN.
I can't believe I'm writing this, but the NFL needs to emulate baseball on this and trust its product, instead of playing economic games to wring every last penny of revenue out of every situation. There are plenty of revenue streams available to the NFL that don't involve pissing off large groups of fans who are waving their billfolds around looking for a way to hand some cash over to their favorite sports league.
Those fans should demand that the league put the product out there and then figure out where the revenue streams are.
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NFL Week 13, Part 1 [PERMALINK]
Green Bay (10-1) at DALLAS (10-1)
This is the NFC's version of that Patriots-Colts blockbuster a month ago, right down to the matchup of the conference's two top quarterbacks, Brett Favre of the Packers and Tony Romo of the Cowboys. But where Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are all about extreme competence and brilliant decision making, Favre and Romo are all "Look up! I'm throwin' it!"
That's an exaggeration on both sides, but let's face it, the NFC gunslingers are more fun to watch than the AFC generals.
Now if only the game were on national TV for real.
It should be a high-scoring game in which turnovers play a decisive role. I think neither team is quite as good as its 10-1 record, and that the Cowboys do almost everything the Packers do but a little bit better. Plus, they're playing at home.
Don't want to spend the whole night in a sports bar? Show up late. This one will still be up in the air.
Kids: Dallas (7-point favorite)
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College football tournament, Part 143 [PERMALINK]
For some of us, arguing about whether college football needs a playoff system has for years been a little like arguing about whether the earth is round or chocolate tastes good. The answer is obvious, and disagreement says more about the disagreer than about the topic.
But this crazy season has allegedly "fired up" the "debate" over "the" need for a tournament like the ones that decide the championship of every other NCAA sport, including the lower divisions of football.
There's also a lively debate going on, I hear, about whether water is wet.
If this nutty, wacko season, in which, count 'em, two whole teams have held the No. 1 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series poll, has actually convinced anyone that the current system is absurd, I suppose that's a good thing, but I wonder what dinosaur these people had been sleeping under.
To review, the way the BCS is going to work this year is exactly the way musical chairs works. Whichever two of the various halfway competent teams hanging around the top of the poll happen to be sitting at No. 1 and No. 2 when the music stops get to play for the championship. The reason they'll be hanging around near the top? Their losses happened earlier in the season.
Wait, that's how it works every year, but until now at least one of those teams has had the decency to be undefeated, having started the season with four or five wins against the Pivnick Techs of the world and then blown through their conference, which usually had the decency to be lousy.
Laying out a plan for how a tournament might work is a fun pastime, but I think the rest of us can pretty much pack up our slide rules and go home after reading Dan Wetzel's plan at Yahoo Sports. His lunatic notion is that a Division I-A, or whatever it's called this week, tournament ought to look a lot like those in the lower divisions, which are fantastic.
I defy you to read his plan and his arguments and say, "No, that wouldn't work out."
Then you can explain how there's no such thing as gravity.
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But we try around here, we really do. This column, for all its complaining about college football, with the corruption and the cockamamie playoff system and the stupid polls, loves college football.
Games. Loves college football games. Even watches them sometimes.
So Wednesday, out-of-the-blue invitation in hand, this column clambered onto a cable car -- I told you I moved back to San Francisco -- and rumbled halfway to the stars, or at least halfway to Van Ness Avenue, for something any journalist worth his salt wouldn't dare miss.
A free lunch. In this case the annual Guardsmen Luncheon, a tradition connected to the Stanford-Cal "Big Game," which is Saturday.
It was old school, and I mean old school, as in a lot of men older than me wearing school ties. Old ones. The ties. The Guardsmen is a service organization that raises money for scholarships and camp for at-risk kids in the Bay Area. The luncheon features a short program with the coaches, a few players, the team broadcasters and emcee Bob Sarlatte all saying a few words, telling a few jokes, that sort of thing.
I find that enjoying college football involves some pretending on my part. Pretending that the players aren't unpaid pros, that the games aren't meaningless in terms of championship play until the BCS poll essentially flips a coin and says, "You, and you," to two teams, that the whole thing isn't just a huge mess of a bastardization of what higher education is all about.
I can do that sometimes. Even when the old alma mater is on a losing streak. Go Bears!
So I listened to the coaches, Jeff Tedford and Jim Harbaugh, talk about the tradition of this rivalry and how proud they are of their young men and all that stuff.
I listened to two of those young men from each team, Pannel Egboh and Evan Moore of Stanford, Thomas DeCoud and Justin Forsett of Cal, and was impressed by their poise and humor, envious of their being at that time of life when the possibilities are so great, that time they'll look back on someday as being golden and simple, even though they're probably not thinking of it that way now and they're probably right.
I left feeling pretty good about the whole thing. The free lunch, I mean. But also college football and the big game. Not just this here local "Big Game" but any big game, the late-autumn Saturday, the chill in the air, the big rivalry, all that old school stuff.
I hope the powers that be in college football at least start thinking about fixing up all that's wrong with it sometime soon. Maybe it's just me in a sentimental mood. Maybe it was the free lunch. Maybe it was the cable car. But if I squint just so, and the bands are playing and the crowds are cheering and the ball is in the air, it seems to me that college football's worth fixing.
Previous column: Grieving for Sean Taylor
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