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  • The Super Bowl’s first media availability with both teams has gone from a utilitarian afternoon to a bizarre circus of events which is televised and to which fans can buy tickets. And it's everything the NFL wants it to be.
By Charlotte Wilder
January 29, 2019

ATLANTA — Bill Belichick hates this.

The Patriots’ head coach is sitting at a podium set up in State Farm Arena for Super Bowl LIII’s Opening Night because he has to, but you can tell he doesn’t really want to be there. Someone makes him pick a piece of paper out of a helmet, and on the paper is a question about Maroon 5, the band playing the Super Bowl halftime show. He throws the paper back at the crowd gathered in front of him and smirks.

“Ask me a question about football,” he says.

No one does—at least not a substantive one. This isn’t Media Day anymore, it’s Opening Night. The court where the Atlanta Hawks usually play basketball is covered in wall-to-wall blue carpeting. A huge stage sits in the middle. NFL Network’s Scott Hanson is narrating the entire event over a loudspeaker, his face projected on TVs around the arena. The network is broadcasting the event, and 10,000 fans are sitting in the stands watching reporters mill around like extras in a movie. Groups of Patriots loyalists chant, “We’re still here!” and Rams fans had burst into screams when coach Sean McVay took the stage.

The first media availability of both Super Bowl teams hasn’t always been this way. This event was created to give newspaper reporters access to the players and coaches before the big game. Availability used to be held in hotels, conferences rooms, sometimes even at the stadium. SI has a great series of photos from media days gone by; in one of them, Walter Payton lounges on the turf in New Orleans before the Bears went on to destroy the Patriots. In another, Cris Collinsworth answers a reporter’s question in what looks like a hotel banquet hall while a few others hover around him with recorders the size of large iPhones.

“It sort of sort of signifies how media has changed,” The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn says. “The idea of it in the old days was to make Devin McCourty, or Gronk, or whoever accessible to the print media. If you were doing a story with an easy angle like the McCourty twins playing on the same team, media day was the place to talk to them both. Then you’d write your story and have a beer after.”

KAHLER: Sights and Sounds From Super Bowl LIII Opening Night

Opening Night in its current form is not that. The NFL sells tickets to fans, something they first started doing at Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. The league shifted the timing of the event to primetime so it could be televised. The teams are trotted out on stage and then the high-profile players are arranged in booths on the floor as though they are in dunk tanks at a country fair—one wrong answer and Tom Brady or Aaron Donald could plummet into a tub of social media ridicule.

In order for a reporter to get a question in, you have to fight your way through a throng of other reporters and tripods to get close enough to a player to even have a prayer of snagging his attention. I try to elbow my way through the throng of reporters and camera-people surrounding Brady to ask why he shut down his fake newspaper, the TB Times, but I don’t get closer than ten people away from the quarterback. I scream my question anyway and a much more serious journalist scolds me—“Charlotte!”—using the tone of voice with which my teachers used to yell at me. I eventually give up. But that’s the only thing you should really bother trying to ask at this thing. Who can give a real answer about something substantive when you’re sitting on a dunk tank?

“Media Night used to be, ‘Lets spread the gospel of this Super Bowl and how wonderful the NFL is,’” says NBC’s Peter King, a longtime senior writer for Sports Illustrated and the former editor-in-chief of The MMQB. “Now it’s, ‘Let us spread our wings into alternative media.’ It doesn’t matter how circus-y it is, it’s show business. I know a lot of people in our business who think that it’s the decline of Western Civilization, but it doesn’t bother me. The NFL is all about figuring out ways to make new markets and to find new fans.”

The event in its current form is the physical manifestation of the state of sports coverage today. Print and even online writing isn’t prioritized the way it used to be; much of the emphasis from a team or leagues’ perspective is on social media, online video, and the major networks. Celebrities swarm the floor. The shock or surprise factor of an answer or a moment has to be somewhat high to register in the national consciousness. Programming is largely built on the “grab attention” model. The media companies and individuals who are the most successful these days are those who lean into authenticity and buck traditional ways of reporting.

Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski poses with fans for a quick selfie during Super Bowl LIII Opening Night.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This one night is also the result of every initiative the NFL has been pushing for the past 20 years. Professional football is now a far-reaching, international, entertainment-first spectacle that aims to rake in money from every possible angle and puts its bottom line before everything else. The NFL is frighteningly good at squeezing money out of anything that could be remotely connected to the sport, and this strategy is astonishingly good business. They’ve been pushing in recent years to expand the sport beyond the United States (hence the games they force feed us from London and Mexico City—when Shakira concerts don’t mess up the field—a few times a year). When you see the various countries represented at Opening Night, this emphasis becomes that much more obvious.

“Media night isn’t just a bunch of grizzled white guy sports reporters anymore,” Finn says. “It’s people from everywhere. That’s the cool aspect of it, that’s what’s changed for the better. And for all of the NFL’s flaws and horrible ways they do things, sometimes they’re very smart about turning everything they have into something they can commercialize and monetize and make into a bigger deal than it should be.”

I don’t mind Opening Night in its current form. Yes, it’s silly and kind of stupid. Usually there are people wandering around dressed up in costumes, but this year was more subdued, so it sometimes bordered on boring. It’s still fun, though—I even got a chance to ask Sean McVay how old he is. Fun is important in sports coverage. And yes, there are very serious issues and very meaty stories that need to be covered in the sports world. But it’s O.K. if every once in a while you need to make some a guy sit on a dunk tanks and ask him about his fake newspaper. Even if he can’t hear you.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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