The NFL's Winter Classic

Posted: January 21, 2014

THIS YEAR'S Super Bowl is not just about expanding the NFL's ultimate championship game into cold-weather cities. It's much bigger than that.

It is about the length of the NFL season. It's about expanding it by another month, maybe even into March. Before you discount this, please note that the NFL season once contained 12 games and finished before January. Please note, too, that college football once owned New Year's Day and ended pretty much then, too, and that the NBA Finals used to take place in May, not June.

Most of all, please note also that Barclay's Premier League, the elite soccer league based in Great Britain, now extends from August through May every season, allowing it to exponentially increase its overall television rights fees over the last 20 years to more than 2.7 billion pounds, or nearly 4.5 billion U.S. dollars. Last year NBC Sports Group paid $250 million for the U.S. rights over the next 3 years, tripling what Fox had given under the previous deal.

But the most important aspect of the league's 10-month run is that it virtually never goes away. Sponsorships, endorsements, naming rights all become more attractive - and lucrative - as a result.

It's not that the NFL feels threatened by the Premier League. Inspired is the better word.

The NHL now hypes its opening night and owns New Year's Day thanks to the Winter Classic, the creation of NBC marketing whiz Jon Miller and NHL vice president John Collins, a former NFL marketing executive.

When the Winter Classic was here, Collins spoke freely about using such events as "a platform" to lengthen the league's hold on our attention and thus improve its attraction to advertisers and sponsors. It makes sense: The longer you are exposed to something, the more pervasive it becomes. Thus the NHL now uses events like its opening night, the Winter Classic and the outdoor games being played in places like Dodger Stadium to extend our national awareness of its stars and story lines.

This expansion of the NFL season theory isn't my original thought, although I wish it was. Eric Winston, an offensive tackle with the Arizona Cardinals and my cousin's son-in-law, expressed it when he and his team came to town during the first weekend of December. If you can play a Super Bowl outdoors in the Meadowlands on Feb. 2, he said, why can't you play a regular-season one there on Feb. 9? If the Packers can host a playoff game in early January, what's the big deal about a regular-season game a month later?

You could add bye weeks, of course, or maybe break up the season into two or three segments with a couple of weeks of down time separating each.

Kickoff for the Cardinals game here on Dec. 1 was 48 degrees. A week later, the Birds and Lions played in a blizzard. Two weeks after that, the Eagles crushed the Bears on a balmy Sunday night with temperatures in the 60s.

It was 5 degrees at kickoff for the Packers' first-round playoff game against San Francisco on Jan. 4. It was 28 degrees with flurries when the NFC Championship Game kicked off yesterday in Seattle. Truth is, it is just as likely to snow for a Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium as it is for an NFC playoff game. Or just as unlikely.

But for the record, the NFL isn't fretting the white stuff. As Frank Supovitz, the NFL's senior vice president of events, told the Star Ledger in a story that appeared yesterday, "A little bit of snow during the game will make it all that much more historical, all that much more romantic, all that much more competitive and fun, I think - all that much more visual."

Can you say "Winter Classic?"

"There's nothing wrong with a little bit of snow during Super Bowl XLVIII," Supovitz said.

Some of football's most famous games have been played, and arguably enhanced, by brutal weather. There was the Ice Bowl of course, a game that every football-loving kid born in the 10 years before it or 20 years after it mimicked when there was even a hint of snow on the ground.

There was the lesser-celebrated NFC Championship Game that I attended in 1993, which required an elaborate resodding of Candlestick Park after 2 weeks of nearly nonstop soaking rain and a playoff game in the middle of it that left the field, in the words of an Associated Press report, "nothing so much as plowed acreage." Trucks and trucks of turf from the southern California desert were driven up 101 to the Bay area, and George Toma's crew worked feverishly amid the incessant rain to reestablish a playing surface.

The bill for all that went to the NFL, as will any weather-related adjustments needed to ready the Meadowlands for Super Sunday. Right now the forecast calls for temperatures in the 30s with a chance for rain or snow. Definitely not Phoenix, Tampa or Miami, but hardly the worst conditions, considering what important NFL games have already been played in this season.

So prepare for the worst. Or the best, depending on how much football you're willing to watch.

Under any conditions.


On Twitter: @samdonnellon

philly.com/SamDonnellon

donnels@phillynews.com

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