Roundtable: What will media coverage of Super Bowl look like in 50 years?
Imagine attending Super Bowl 100 as a member of the media. What will you be covering on the field? What kind of access will you have to the players? Will there be a Super Bowl Media Day? How will the game look – if it indeed even exists? With that exploration in mind, Sports Illustrated and WIRED have partnered to examine, in stories and in video, the enormous changes that football will see over the next five decades including media coverage. To get a glimpse into a potential future involving the media coverage, we paneled a quartet of respected reporters and writers and posed a series of questions about covering Super Bowl 100.
Mike Freeman, NFL national lead writer, Bleacher Report
John Ourand, Sports Business Daily media writer
Peter Schrager, NFL on FOX reporter.
Jenny Vrentas, MMQB senior writer
The group was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. Their responses are below.
Richard Deitsch: What will the game look like for Super Bowl 100?
Mike Freeman: First of all, to begin the day, there will be a special Super Bowl edition of First Take. Skip Bayless's head, having been perfectly preserved and functioning “Mars Attacks” style, will debate who would have won Super Bowl 100: LeBron James or Tim Tebow. The uniforms will look like those that race car drivers wear. They will be riddled with ads. Yes, there will still be Viagra ads 50 years from now. And FanDuel. The helmets will be composed of a new polymer that absorbs most of the concussive blows. They will also have head trauma sensors that are monitored by an independent neurologist sponsored by Cialis.
The game we will see 50 years from now will be remarkably less violent but faster and more athletic. It will look a little like the football scene in Starship Troopers (Google it.) The field will be about 70 yards long. The human beings that play it will also look different. The linemen and linebackers will be much smaller and quicker. A right tackle will weigh 220 pounds and most skill position players will be in the 150 to 170 pound range.
Because of the concerns of head trauma, kids from wealthy backgrounds will no longer play football. They've gone to the most popular American sport, basketball. Football will be played mostly by the poor, mostly by people of color. The NFL will be 98% African-American and Latino. Women will also be playing, particularly at the skill positions. And no one will care that 10% of the NFL is openly gay.
John Ourand: Overall, the game on the field will look mostly the same —100 yard field, 11 players per side. Some significant rule changes will be implemented: we won’t see kickoffs; goal posts will be narrower. The players will look different, too, using equipment to try and alleviate concussions and knee injuries.
Peter Schrager: I hope it’s at least fairly similar to the one we watch now. That means there’s been a sizable investment in health and safety that nets positive results We will not be watching two-hand touch or 7 on 7. The NFL’s got its challenges in front of it over the next few years, I know, but the game is as popular as it’s ever been. The league continues to mine every last outlet for revenue and exposure but I think the game itself is pretty close to perfect as is—both for the viewer and for those involved. I’m traveling every week to do sideline reporting this year for Fox. After the games, it’s a rush to the airport to catch the last flight home. [Fox Announcer] Kevin Burkhardt and I were laughing a few weeks ago in the Fort Lauderdale Airport after the Dolphins-Cowboys game. You’ve got a better chance at getting a table on a Saturday night at 1OAK than getting a seat at the bar at an airport Chili’s on a Sunday afternoon. That’s a good thing. My advice to the league is to not mess too much with a good thing if they don’t have to.
Jenny Vrentas: This article in Wired recently suggested that the future of stadiums might be no stadiums at all—and rather pop-up venues, like open plazas or arenas that are converted for big events, as happens in the Olympics. That makes a lot of sense for the future, since we hear all the time about a growing number of fans enjoying the at-home NFL gameday experience more than the one in-stadium. Perhaps that results in NFL teams trending toward “micro” stadiums, which hold less than 50,000 fans, are less expensive to build and provide more intimate gameday experiences. For big events like the Super Bowl, pop-up spaces could cater to larger crowds. That’s an intriguing idea.
As for the game itself, we have to expect that if football is thriving in another 50 years, the sport will have continued to morph in response to growing safety concerns. Some examples: having linemen squat at the line of scrimmage instead of getting in the three-point stance, to reduce the subconcussive hits that happen in the trenches; the elimination of kickoffs entirely; rapid and objective concussion tests such as pricking your finger on the sideline to test for a protein in the blood. And, equipment changes beyond simply adding extra padding to helmets—for example, Julian Bailes, the neurosurgeon who is portrayed in the upcoming movie Concussion, is testing a neck collar that he says can reduce the so-called slosh movement of the brain inside the skull that results in concussions. These are all changes that could happen in the next 25 years, let alone 50.
RD: What kind of media access will you have for the week and the game?
Freeman: Any access we want. That week, there will be profiles from the homes of players. Live cameras on the practice field. The NFL Network will have a setup like the CBS reality show Big Brother where every part of the team complex (including meeting rooms) will have a camera and microphone and everything will be accessible to fans on their phones. Instead of many thousands of media covering the game, there will only be several hundred, and access will be easy. Media will be able to grab players as they walk off the practice field. Talk to them while they eat lunch. Sit in with them while they watch film.
The reason for the great access is because 50 years from now the sport's popularity will have significantly waned because science will have proven conclusively that playing football causes long-term brain damage. In the year 2040, the surgeon general officially declared: "Playing football poses serious risks to long-term mental health." As a result, instead of being the big boy on the block, the NFL will be third behind the NBA and MLB, and the Super Bowl will be desperate for media coverage. So the media will be able to get any access it wants. Similar to the first Super Bowls when the media would interview players in their hotel rooms as the NFL tried to grow the game.
Ourand: Media access during the week will remain the same. The NFL still will draw enough interest that most major news outlets will show up during the week. But media access during the game will be much more restrictive. The trend of moving press boxes far away from the field will continue. The league will decide it can make more money from selling tickets than creating an auxiliary press box. Most of the press will watch the game on monitors and have locker room access after the game. The host broadcaster (yes, broadcast still will exist) will have preferential access, as will NFL-owned media.
Schrager: Each year, there’s less and less access, and I don’t see that trend changing anytime soon. There’s bitching and moaning about it in the press box, but it just means you have to work harder and explore different avenues to get information and good content. Unfortunately, access is never just given to us anymore and by no means is it a “right.” So, you’ve got to build that trust and those relationships around the league. It takes time and patience and it’s work. I had a conversation with Phil Simms recently and asked him about Super Bowl Media Day in 1987. He said it was held on a high school field and the beat reporters rode on the bus with the team to the session. That wasn't 1927. It was 1987. Well, that’s not happening anymore, whether we like it or not. No one wants to hear reporters complain about Marshawn Lynch not talking to them or the journalistic shortcomings of The Player’s Tribune, but there’s also a value to having great stories done by professional storytellers. Jay Glazer’s recent deep dive on Tyrann Mathieu on Fox NFL Sunday was awesome. I loved Mike Garafolo’s piece on how the Chiefs responded to Jamaal Charles’s mid-season injury. Every three months, Kent Babb will drop a jaw-dropping piece in the Washington Post that makes me insanely jealous of him. As I say all this, I recall someone asking Bill Belichick last year what his favorite Katy Perry song was at Super Bowl Media Day. Alas, for the life of me, I do not recall his answer.
Vrentas: For starters, will there be media access at all? The media, so essential in growing the NFL in its first 50 years, has been increasingly treated as a nuisance by those in and around the sport. Teams and players want more control over the content produced about them, in part because athletes now have a direct conduit to their fans via social media. There’s been a trend in recent years of NFL teams hiring a longtime newspaper beat reporter in their market to write for the team website, and teams generating exclusive media content only on their own platforms. Organizations like the Pro Football Writers of America continue to fight to maintain our access to locker rooms and the teams we cover, but in 50 years, will we still be winning that fight? Consider how much has changed since 1969, when Joe Namath made his famous Super Bowl III guarantee to reporters while laying poolside at the team’s Ft. Lauderdale hotel. Now, during Super Bowl week, we get about an hour a day in a hotel ballroom packed with players and reporters, jostling to get in a question or two. This is a people business, and I hope that relationships between reporters and the people we cover will keep those doors open, to allow us to tell the great stories of this game. But the trend over time has been for access to be restricted, especially for major events, and the opportunities for the next generation of reporters to build those relationships have become fewer and fewer.
Look for new entries in the Super Bowl 100 series, presented by Gatorade and Microsoft Surface, at SI.com/SB100 and Wired.com/SB100
Chapter 1, Oct. 7 TRAINING
Chapter 2, Oct. 28 EQUIPMENT
Chapter 3, Nov. 18 STADIUMS
Chapter 4, Dec. 9 CONCUSSIONS
Chapter 5, Dec. 16 MEDIA
Chapter 6, Dec. 30 VR
Chapter 7, Jan. 6 NFL IN SOCIETY
Chapter 8, Jan. 13 TRACKING
Chapter 9, Jan. 20 STRATEGY
Chapter 10, Jan. 27 SB 100
RD: How will viewers be watching the game (devices/medium)?
Freeman: I think viewers will still be watching it the way we do Super Bowls now. It will still be somewhat of an event where everyone gathers around a TV and parties. I think the difference will be the level of technology. Where I could be wrong about the possible dwindling amount of people who will play and watch the sport is with the technology. Think about where television was 50 years ago, in the mid-1960s. Fifty years from now, holographic technology could put you on the field, so to speak, making the game riveting to watch. Sorry, that's my inner Star Trek coming out again. But it's not unrealistic.
Ourand: The cliché of “best available screen” still will apply. Fifty years ago, people watched the game on their TVs. That won’t change. HDTV and 4K will seem quaint. Super Bowl parties will watch holograms of the teams playing on the field. Those not at Super Bowl parties will use Virtual Reality to watch the games and keep in touch with friends.
Schrager: I’m fascinated by virtual reality, and think it’s the next big thing in tech and entertainment. Google and the New York Times partnered to provide that awesome experience with the Google Cardboard in the New York Times Magazine and I believe that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sports are next. I’m not sure if I’m breaking any news here, but I know the Patriots will be providing a Cardboard experience for fans in Week 15 where a select few at Gillette Stadium will be able to watch the Patriots’ players warming up and practicing from the players vantage point via 360 degree virtual reality. Stuff like that is the next wave and where we’re headed. In 2066, I imagine you’ll not only be able to watch the game from your couch, but also from the vantage point of the defensive end, from the sideline reporter’s eyes, and from the Super Bowl halftime entertainment act’s backup singer's point of view. I’ve seen and experienced some prototypes of gadgets from a few of the top VR companies, and the possibilities are really endless. Cool stuff. The NFL’s got a good core of smart executives pushing things forward, too. Names like Brian Rolapp, Jordan Levin, and Hans Schroeder aren’t making the same headlines as Rex, Chip, or Brady, but I think they could be as important to the game’s future as the players and coaches on the field. Virtual reality is next. I imagine the TV networks are excited about all the possibilities, too. I, of course, can only speak for Fox, but I know our network has never been shy about embracing and forwarding the latest in sports technology. I’d imagine CBS, NBC, and ESPN feel the same way.
Vrentas: Full disclosure: I am what you would call a last adopter when it comes to new technologies. I still own a Blackberry, as my personal phone, because I like its physical keyboard. That being said, I would imagine the viewing experience will be very personalized and very information-heavy. The NFL, for example, has its new partnership with Zebra Technologies, in which stadiums and players are equipped with sensors to record things like how fast or how far a receiver is running. I haven’t seen this incorporated much into broadcasts this year, and I’m not sure how much viewers really care about that kind of statistic in the middle of a football game. But we’ll probably see more of this kind of thing in the future. I can see each viewer watching the game on his or her own handheld device, with options on the touch screen to choose different replay angles or real-time analytics for any player on the field. The Yahoo! London broadcast, which on my end froze about a quarter of the time, proved there is still a long way to go when it comes to streaming, but we’re talking 50 years from now. And by then, tablets will probably have long since been replaced by some device I can’t even conceive of, developed by the 6-year-old on the scooter who crashed into me at Whole Foods the other day.
RD: How many media will be covering the game?
Freeman: I think the number will be small, as I noted before. Definitely far smaller than now. My feeling remains that in 50 years the sport's popularity won't even be close to its current levels because it will be viewed as barbarism, and our sensibilities as human beings will change by the 100th Super Bowl. Since, as my theory goes, there will be less interest in football from the public, there will be less demand for media coverage.
Ourand: Double the amount that covers the game now.
Schrager: I hope a lot. That means there’s still a reason for us.
Vrentas: It’s quite possible there will be less media actually at the game, and more non-traditional media outlets covering the game from afar. If in-person access continues to be restricted, there will be plenty of outlets that figure they can just as well produce content from afar, without spending the travel costs to attend the game.
RD: What kind of media will be covering the game?
Freeman: There will still be a mainstream presence in the media but most media covering the Super Bowl will be bloggers and independent contractors. Reporters covering the event will be technological wonders. Each one will have a dime-sized drone to help record interviews. Some journalists won't even leave home to cover press conferences. They'll use their holographic selves to do so.
One thing I think you'll continue to see is the de-evolution of sports journalism. The coverage will be less journalistic and insidery and more like the way the entertainment media covers Hollywood. In other words, the Manziel-ization of media coverage. There will be even less coverage of head trauma and more of who is sleeping with whom, features on who makes a better omelet: defensive linemen or quarterbacks? Football, because it will need to attract more attention, will be more like wrestling and boxing off the field. More showmanship. The commissioner will be a Jim McMahon type.
Ourand: Big news brands still will exist and have reporters at the game. Blogs will morph into citizen journalists, the most popular of whom will be granted press access. The NFL will decide who gets credentialed by how much interaction people have with other (today, that’s called follower counts).
Schrager: You’ll get all walks, I’m sure. International expansion is next on the docket for the league, so that’ll be fascinating. Just as we’re seeing more and more soccer TV coverage in America, I imagine you’ll start seeing more and more NFL coverage overseas. If you didn’t enjoy a month of “IS CHIP KELLY A RACIST?” discussion on American TV this past off-season, imagine it in 100 languages. Oh, the possibilities.
Vrentas: When I covered my first Super Bowl, eight years ago, we did not tweet. Imagine that! That shows you how rapidly the media landscape is changing, and how difficult it is to predict what is next. I hope there will always be a place for thorough reporting and in-depth journalism, but I also know the trend now is for consumers to want real-time, bite-sized, experiential pieces of information. There will be less writers, and more information-gatherers. I can see media outlets developing live channels, a la Periscope, to give fans a real-time window into what they are seeing and reporting. We’re going to see television greater incorporated with digital platforms in the coming years, especially as rising cable subscribers fees are leading to more cord-cutting by consumers, so the biggest change for the media in the next few decades will be producing content that marries with the new sports-viewing model.
[tile:11478321RD: Will there be anything different about the playoff system leading up to the game?
Freeman: Probably similar system to now. But there will be fewer playoffs teams, because in my dystopian NFL future, there are fewer teams overall. Maybe half as many.
Ourand: The playoff system will not change much. More teams will be added to do away with first round byes. But the league still wants to make sure its regular season matters, and resists letting every team have a playoff chance.
Schrager: I think in the next four to five years we could see the NFL playoffs extend from 12 teams to 16. I wouldn’t have a problem with it. That’d mean no more first round byes. Four division winners, four Wildcard teams in each conference. More playoff games to enjoy. More playoff games for the NFL to sell broadcast rights to.
Vrentas: It’s only a matter of time before the NFL expands the playoff field, because more games will make more money. I also think there will be a change to the seeding in the not-too-distant future, whereby winning your division still ensures you entry to the playoffs, but not necessarily a home game. Once the playoff field is determined, teams would be seeded based on record. That’s not 50 years down the line, though; more like 10 or 15. After that? It depends on if, or how much, the sport of football continues to grow.
RD: How many viewers will be watching the game?
Freeman: I think the same amount that watch the Stanley Cup Finals now.
Ourand: 1 billion people. That includes an international audience. It also includes the inevitable double counting of people that are accessing the game on several devices, including specific camera feeds.
Schrager: I think with all the options that will be readily available by then—TV, streaming, Virtual Reality—it’ll shatter whatever records we’ve seen thus far.
Vrentas: This gets to the heart of the biggest question in football today: Can the bubble keep growing, or at some point, whether it be because of safety concerns or otherwise, will it burst? The example oft-cited is baseball, which once was America’s pastime and is still very popular, but has been overtaken by another sport. It might seem unlikely now, but sometime in the next 50 years, we may see viewership for the Super Bowl level off and even dip a little bit, as has been the case for the World Series. Of course, Super Bowl viewership leveling off sometime in the next half-century would still mean hundreds of millions of viewers.
RD: What will Super Bowl Media Day look like for Super Bowl 100?
Freeman: It will be an even bigger clown show, more like wrestling, as players fight for attention and headlines in a sport that has waning popularity. Also, Skip Bayless's head will have its own podium.
Ourand: It will be a highly rated, slickly produced and heavily scripted primetime event. And it will attract almost none of the beat or league reporters.
Schrager: Super Bowl Media NIGHT! It’s a Monday evening primetime event now, Richard. Get it right. I think Super Bowl 100 Media Day will be very similar to Super Bowl 50 Media Day. A circus of sorts. Lots of laughs. Lots of silly questions. Lots of fun.
Vrentas: A variety show? That would actually be kind of fun. Here’s one guess: There won’t be an in-person Media Day. Each player will have his own live digital channel during the week of the game, something like a Google hangout. Anyone can pay to access the channel and ask questions, in lieu of a Media Day. As treasonous as I feel discussing future ideas that would reduce the role of independent media outlets, I could see it happening, for two reasons: It would make money, and the players could choose which questions they answer. I could also see players having their own live channels throughout Super Bowl game week, to which fans could subscribe. FOX recently bought an app created by two former players, Jeb Terry and Ryan Nece, called “Gridiron Grunts,” which is used by current NFL players to capture mobile video that is then shared on multiple platforms, including FOX gameday broadcasts. It would be an expanded version of that idea, with players providing behind-the-scenes access on their own terms (and probably being paid to do so).