It’s almost uncomfortable, unfamiliar, as it is this time every year: A Sunday has passed without the cacophony of NFL football distracting us from the little frustrations of everyday life.
For the last six months’ worth of Sundays, the NFL has been there, a constant, the new national pastime. But, as our Ty Schalter pointed out in a different way, the NFL is a very self-aware minter of billions of dollars annually. The league has made it so that we are never without professional football, even when there’s no game being played and our televisions switch to basketball, hockey, golf or off entirely.
More than any other professional league in America, the NFL is a year-round enterprise. And it’s shrewdly designed that way. We are never forgetting about its existence or caught off guard when some major offseason event takes place. Football is, for better or for worse, everywhere. And it’s certainly for better for its die-hard fans, the media who cover it (hello!) and for the NFL’s financial bottom line.
The breather between the Super Bowl and the NFL’s next big moment—the Scouting Combine, where this year’s top draft hopefuls all convene in Indianapolis to be weighed, measured, drilled and interviewed—lasts mere weeks. This year’s event stretches from February 23 to the 29th. Then, just over a week later comes another major moment in the league’s offseason—the start of the new league year, which marks the beginning of free agents being signed by all 32 teams. That begins March 9, though of course the league has further increased the intrigue of one of the most frantic moments of the year by allowing “legal tampering,” when teams and agents can begin testing the market for players and make offers in the two days before the actual start of free agency.
In fact, there may be no time of the year more compelling in the NFL than that early-March start of new league business. Free agency isn’t limited to the first day of league operations, of course, and the meat of the moment spans at least 10 days. There is endless drumming up before it happens, endless, breathless coverage when it does and then nearly a month’s worth of analysis made in response to the players signed, released and pursued by teams to no avail. And at the very same time, chatter about the draft starts amplifying, reaching a fever pitch by the time the late-April event begins.
Indeed, the NFL draft has become an industry in itself. The creation of mock drafts, big boards, the evaluation of “tape,” the minutiae of various prospects’ pro day workouts are all devoured in increasingly larger portions every year. The internet has helped this venture out considerably; even the most marginal-seeming of draft prospects are being evaluated as thoroughly as the biggest names in college football. Though this draft obsession was borne organically by fans and self-styled “draftnicks,” the league benefits immensely from this wall-to-wall coverage. And, again, it’s another way the NFL keeps itself in the forefront of sports fans’ minds even with the Week 1 kickoff still months away.
After the draft, evaluations of teams’ draft classes and undrafted rookie signings continue until teams finally convene for minicamps and organized workouts, where we can then get our first glimpses of the rosters doing football-relevant work on a grassy field.
That gives way to summertime’s training camps, which then turn into preseason game coverage. Suddenly, the regular season begins anew and the obsession becomes a bit more healthy, given that actual games are finally being played again.
The NFL, wittingly or not, manages to strike a balance between making it hard to miss what isn’t really gone and providing constant reminders of the league’s existence in and dominance over the United States’ sporting culture. This monopoly makes it so one can never tire of or at least forget about football at any time of year, that there is always something football-related to consume. And if you do tire of it, or need a break, you can dip your toes in and out of the water depending on how much interest you hold in the various markers of the game’s offseason.
It may be disorienting to have spent Sunday without the crash of pads, the officials’ whistles blowing, of touchdown celebrations and the agony of a costly interception. But the NFL has made it so that mourning isn’t necessary. While football indeed has an offseason—we’re in it, like it or not—it never really sleeps, never really leaves us. It’s a year-round industry, a byproduct of our own obsession with the sport as much as the NFL knowing what it needs to do to make money even when there’s no games being played. So fear not: While our Sundays will be spent differently over the next six months, something new in the NFL is always within reach, no matter the date on the calendar.
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