When I was in high school, I ran track. (It was 15 years and 40 pounds ago but I was actually pretty good.) When it wasn't track season, our track coach encouraged us to play other sports during the year. Part of it was because we were in Minnesota--it's not like you can easily run track year round. But mostly it was because our coach believed the variety made you a better overall athlete and prevented your body from getting burned out by doing the same thing day in and day out.
Growing up, it was pretty simple: guys played football, soccer, or cross country in the Fall. We did basketball, hockey, or swimming in the Winter. When Spring came along, it was baseball, track, or maybe tennis. When you had time in the summer, you'd go to a few camps or tournaments of your preferred sport if you were really dedicated. Even the video games I played growing up reflected the changing sports seasons. I'd play Super Tecmo Bowl or Madden during football season. I'd pop in an NBA or NCAA basketball game when hoops was on. Summer time meant RBI Baseball or MVP Baseball was in my gaming console.
The concept of different seasons for different sports has all but melted away today. These days if you aren't playing your preferred sport at least 10 months a year from a very young age, you're "falling behind". There aren't just summer camps for your individual sports anymore; there are multiple camps solely dedicated to individual positions of sports. Hockey goalie camps in May? No problem. QB camps and 7-on-7 drills in April? Of course! Baseball instruction in December? Just let us know if you want to focus on your pitching, hitting, or fielding. Youth sports are becoming so specialized that burnout is becoming a huge issue.
The year-round specialized focus isn't limited to the kids that play the sports. Being a fan of a professional team or sport seems to take the same hyper-focused dedication we're forcing on today's youth sports.
If you follow a college team, you know all about the big high school recruits your team is going after. If baseball is your sport, you're closely following a 19-year-old phenom playing ball for your franchise's AA squad when you aren't busy breaking down the starting rotation's xFIP. Hockey fans can tell you all about the kid currently playing in the Swedish league that could help their team make a run at the Stanley Cup in a couple years. Hardcore basketball fans can explain why even though a 7 footer is averaging only 8 points a game as a freshman, he's a lock to be a lottery pick in next year's draft due to his advanced rebounding metrics. Most of the growing contingent of Premier League soccer fans in the United States will never attend an actual match; that doesn't stop them from waking up early on weekends to watch their favorite team and debate the manager's attacking strategy with fellow fans on Twitter.
No matter what your sporting preference is, the information age has made it relatively easy to immerse yourself in any sport at any time of year. But the old adage "there is no offseason" rings truer with football than with any other sport in America today. Case in point: there hasn't been a down of meaningful NFL football played in 60 days. There won't be a down of meaningful NFL football played for another 156 days. It's the only one of the four major American sports that isn't currently in season. Yet football is still featured in the first block of SportsCenter almost daily.
We've already been poring over mock drafts for months, and the NFL draft is still 36 days away. We realize how crazy this is, don't we? We're projecting hundreds of players to 32 different teams thousands of times only to have every single projection rendered inaccurate after the first draft day trade...yet we can't quit doing it.
Earlier this week Ted wrote articles that have hundreds upon hundreds of comments (and counting) debating the merits of Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater. Remember, there's a pretty small chance either will ever play a single down for the Vikings. But that still doesn't stop us from verbally sparring with fellow fans about which one would be a better fit in Norv Turner's offense.
Speaking of Manziel: the NFL's reign over the sporting landscape was never more present than it was during the ridiculousness that was the Johnny Football's Pro Day last week. In attendance was a slew of scouts, a cabal of coaches, a gaggle of GMs, a magnitudinal mass of media members, a former President of the United States, and a partridge in a pear tree. All to watch a guy in camo shorts throwing footballs against a defense that consisted of a freaking broom. (If you're still questioning whether the coverage of the Pro Day was a "sideshow" as Mike Zimmer put it, that broom ended up with its own Twitter account.) The College Station Circus was a prime example of how it's now all football, all the time.
But hey, why not? We still have a lot of time to kill before the draft, so we might as well do mock drafts and pick apart guys that probably won't end up on our team. It's why football is literally just about everywhere these days. But can any sport sustain this level of saturation? Mark Cuban made a highly publicized prediction that the NFL would "implode" in 10 years because the league is getting too greedy. While I don't share Cuban's sentiment that the league is going anywhere that fast, I do share his opinion about putting football on too many nights. We now have NFL games every Thursday, Sunday, and Monday. A big part of the allure of football is the anticipation of the big event. We wait all week for the big Sunday clash. Sure, the novelty of playing on another day is fun here or there, but interrupting the ritual several times a season makes the ebb and flow of the season harder to follow.
At least the busier NFL is much easier to follow with social media and the 24/7 news cycle, right? Well, yes and no.
On one hand, you can quickly find out nearly anything you want about a team or player in a short series of clicks. NFL Game Rewind allows you to watch the same film that coaches do. There are dozens of highlight shows, hundreds of podcasts, and thousands of websites dedicated to filling you in on the minutiae of every nook and cranny of the league. Finding information has never been easier. On the other hand, it's impossible to keep up with everything an NFL fan might want to know. The avalanche of information can quickly bury the casual fan that isn't constantly watching NFL Live or checking their Twitter feed.
Come to think of it, is the "casual NFL fan" becoming extinct? With all the information available it's almost like you're not allowed to follow a team or player unless you know everything about them. This is especially true on Twitter. Just try throwing out a quick opinion about a player to a bunch of diehard fans--something like "this guy seems like he might be a good fit for the Vikings. We should take him at #8." Then watch the contradictory replies come flying in! It can't be fun getting every opinion shot down by "experts". Since all of the information is readily available, it's now on you if you aren't a football know-it-all.
Then again, being a know-it-all isn't always the greatest time either. I'm obviously nuts about the Vikings and the NFL in general--it's the reason why I spend a chunk of my very scarce free time writing for Daily Norseman. (Believe me, it isn't for the salary.) But I gotta admit that the constant barrage of NFL information can be rather taxing at times, especially when there are no actual football games to talk about. The minute a story breaks, I must have a definite opinion about it or run the risk of never getting my voice heard on the subject. Since I write about the Vikings, I have friends and coworkers ask me about them all the time. If I give an answer along the lines of "I'm not sure, I guess we'll have to wait and see", people get a look on their face like I just farted. "But Eric, aren't you a Vikings blogger? You're supposed to know how this is going to affect the team!"
Another downside of the information age? We know nearly everything about players, which isn't exactly pleasant much of the time. The days of idolizing players and looking up to them as infallible role models are long gone. For every story about a player doing something good in the community, there are three or four about another guy running afoul of the law. Don't get me wrong, I still absolutely love football and writing about it; if I didn't, you wouldn't be reading this. But there are instances where being a super-fan can feel like more of a burden than a blast.
The disappearance of the casual fan isn't unique to the NFL though. I've always been a huge Minnesota Twins fan. They were always a close second to the Vikings in my formative sports fan years. However, the gap between the Vikes and Twins has widened greatly in recent years because it's impossible to put equal effort into multiple teams in different sports these days. I simply don't have the "fan bandwidth" to properly follow both teams. If you think the wave of NFL information is immense, just try going down the sabermetric rabbit hole in baseball. Opinions almost aren't even allowed in baseball unless you have the numbers to back them up. I still go to a handful of Twins games each season and watch them on TV pretty often, but I don't think I could call myself a "diehard" now.
And I haven't even mentioned the other sports teams I like. I'm a big supporter of the football and basketball teams of my alma mater, North Dakota State. (GO BISON!) I absolutely love watching the Minnesota Wild. Heck, if Minnesota had an actual professional basketball team I'd probably cheer for them too. (I kid, I kid.) I wish I had more time to devote to them, but my Vikings fandom basically requires my attention at the other teams' expense.
As fellow NFL and Vikings fanatics, do you feel the same way? Maybe I'm way off and I'm letting my busy life as a new(ish) dad cloud my judgement. Perhaps I'm just being nostalgic for the days of when I had more free time to watch ALL THE SPORTS. Or perhaps the constant barrage of football news, especially during the "off" season, is starting to take a little of the fun out of our favorite sport. Are we in the golden age of sports fandom or are we heading for burnout?