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Reality of diversion ensures future of NFL, says author Leibovich

There’s a phrase – “inside baseball” – that gets bandied about whenever someone discusses the nitty gritty of a topic that usually isn’t of interest to everyone else.

Well, we at Fried On Business went “inside football” during the latest episode, and I promise you it was anything but mundane.

Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, came on board to discuss his latest book titled Big Game – The NFL in Dangerous Times.

The project was years in the making, and it was utterly fascinating to hear him share the anecdotes that made it come to life.

I’d like to give a special shout out to Lisa Palley and the Miami Book Fair for connecting us to Leibovich, who was in town to share his new book. He clearly loves the game, and we’ll cut him some slack if the Miami Dolphins aren’t his absolute favorite team.

“I try to be humble. I try to be not as insufferable as many of my Patriots fans,” he said.

Hey, at least he’s not a Jets fan.

Leibovich’s thesis is this: The NFL is under siege. Ratings are sliding. Guys and gals are taking knees during the national anthem. Concussions are still under the microscope. Even the president of the United States is taking pot shots at the league.

“I’m not a doomsayer. But I do think one reason I sort of wanted to jump into this and look at the league – and look at the festival that is everything now – is there’s never been such a great co-existence between popularity, profitability and precariousness,” he said.

“Every week it seems there’s a new existential crisis that’s going to end football as we know it.”

I can speak to the former. For me, football has become a full-day experience. I get to Joe Robbie Sun Life Hard Rock Stadium around 9:30 in the morning, find a parking spot in the shade, break out the portable TV and thoroughly relax before making my way to my seat inside.

That aura surrounding the NFL isn’t going away anytime soon, Leibovich said, because the league has brilliantly marketed itself as year-round party. There’s the scouting, the draft, the Hall of Fame inductions, etc.

Millions of people attend to every detail of the spectacle. It’s a lifestyle, really.

“I also think that if the game survives, and I think it will, it will be because of the greatness of the game itself and in spite of a lot of the people who run and own the thing,” Leibovich said.

“I cover politics. That’s my job at the New York Times. I wanted a break from that, and I was sort of shocked at how far inside I was able to get into the league in just a few years. It was a revelation on many levels.”

Speaking of revelations, Leibovich said he doesn’t recall having worn face paint to any NFL games. A glaring omission, he admits, and one that will be corrected promptly.

At one point, Leibovich said, he was treated to the experience of attending an NFL owners meeting at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. All of the owners he met that day complained about the venue. It ain’t The Breakers, they said.

“This is when I knew I was in pretty rarefied company. Because, you know, the place looked pretty good to me. If anyone listening to this has ever been to the Boca Raton Resort, I mean, it’s beautiful,” he said.

“In some ways this book, and people hopefully will read it, is ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ geared toward what co-owner Steven Tish of the New York Giants called junior high school for billionaires. That’s what he calls the sort-of membership of NFL owners, and it’s true.”

All of which raises a valid question: What is the future of the NFL?

“The fact is people want to revert to The Game. There are any number of things they could worry about in their lives, in U.S. politics, or around football. The NFL has marketed itself, I think very smartly, as a means of escape. You’ve had a really hard day, and if there’s a game on you’re going to turn it on and you’re going to watch,” he said.

It’s a reliable diversion, Leibovich said, that attracts tens of millions of watchers every weekend. That is the future.

This was a fun and fantastic interview, and we covered a lot more of the gridiron, so to speak, including:

– The rise of politics as a reality show that rivals even football.

– The question of whether or not NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell actually has a tattoo of the NFL logo on his, um, rear echelon.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Mark Leibovich of The New York Times Magazine.

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