On March 10, the Eagles traded QB Nick Foles (photo above) to St. Louis and received QB Sam Bradford.

By Barbara Harrison

Most sports fans in this country are concentrating on the NCAA tournament — otherwise known as March Madness.

But the NFL is trying to distract us with its own off-season version of the Madness.

And it is obvious that there really is no NFL off-season anymore.

That’s because the league that has done the best job of attracting eyeballs and dollars has solved its biggest problem: its short, September-February season means it has the longest off time in sports. What happens when you don’t have a season for a majority of the year? You invent one.

A brand measurement company called YouGov tracks companies to see if people are hearing about them at any given time. Their numbers tell the story of the new NFL. In 2013, the popularity of the NFL dipped after the Super Bowl and didn’t come back up for months. In 2014, the buzz returned on March 10. This off-season, according to the data, the general public started talking about the NFL on February 18th, around the time of the league’s annual combine. In a two-year span, the NFL has managed to lay siege to a season that once belonged to other sports.

Luker On Trends, a polling company, asked respondents during the heart of last year’s baseball season which sport was most interesting to them. The answer was football, even though no football games were being played. The NFL beat baseball by four percentage points during the NFL’s off-season.

This is not an accident. It is the product of a handful of moves—some that seemed laughable at the time—to shoehorn events into months when the NFL has been dead. Desperate for an event—anything—to expand the calendar, the league issued an internal challenge to a few NFL employees.

“Our games were growing, but those always had big numbers,” said NFL executive vice president Brian Rolapp. “So you look at the off-season and weekdays during the season and those thing growing on a percentage basis more and more and so there was this idea of ‘How do you find more things that make sense?’”

One product of that brainstorming is the Veteran’s Combine, a workout for athletes who previously played in the NFL. Its debut took place last weekend and generated significant media coverage for the NFL on a Sunday in March.

This second NFL season—one which, of course, makes no sense to anyone who isn’t an NFL die-hard—is about a decade in the making, Rolapp said. It began when the league started broadcasting the draft combine. The event was considered an afterthought at the time. In fact it was an event even NFL scouts regarded as boring: hours and hours and hours of semi-obscure draft picks running a straight line.

But the NFL’s network began broadcasting it—and NFL fans turned it into a mega-event. It became so popular that this year, the NFL changed the event’s schedule so that it would be broadcast from Friday to Monday, so they could maximize television viewership.

These strategic moves, which includes tweaking the league schedule to make sure that teams could negotiate with free agents three days before free agency begins, must always make sense for the teams, Rolapp said. But it doesn’t hurt the attention: this year’s free-agent period, which included the signings of Ndamukong Suh to the Miami Dolphins and the trades of Jimmy Graham to Seattle and Nick Foles to St. Louis, was considered the craziest off-season in NFL history. Baseball spring training and even college basketball was struggling for headlines.

“It’s becoming a spectacle,” Rolapp said. He added the height of the NFL’s ability to create events is the release of the NFL schedule. It’s known months in advance which teams will play which and where. All the mystery that is left is over which week the games will be played.

“We said ‘Stop just giving out in a press release, make a show out of it,’” Rolalpp said. “Several years later, here we are and it’s really good conversation and a really good show for us.”

Now, league executives point out, after the NFL Network broadcast its own show about the new schedule, other sports channels also do their own schedule-release shows.

“A lot of my time is spent on figuring out how you create events and take what were terrific football platforms and make them bigger events,” Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, told the Wall Street Journal

O’Reilly created a calendar that circulates around the league office showing the calendar of events—and the off-season gets as much treatment as the regular season.

And so, for those who are tired of all the nonstop football—baseball executives, for instance—there’s bad news. The league said there’s more growth in the spring.

A focal point going forward will be the “regional combine,” featuring overlooked players who aren’t notable or talented enough for the main combine.

Last year, the league launched a reality show based on these types of players’ stories and, Rolapp said, it was the most successful new show on the network.

Beyond that, he said there have been discussions on lengthening the “league year.” This would involve spacing out off-season events to maximize attention. For the moment, Rolapp said, that campaign remains a bit too complicated.


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