Love ‘em or hate ‘em (and you can count me among the latter) there is no denying the New England Patriots have got this thing pretty well figured out by now. After what was undoubtedly one of the least competitive (resulting in one of the least intriguing) slate of playoff games the NFL has seen in quite a while (save for one nail-biting match-up in the divisional round between Green Bay and Dallas) the league and its network sponsors had all prayers answered when Super Bowl LI went the distance (and then some). In becoming the first ever Super Bowl to require overtime in order to crown a champion, football fans and non-football fans alike were treated to an epic showdown with which to celebrate America’s unofficial national holiday. The game was good. We had the comeback– a historic and unprecedented show of guts (or lack thereof depending on your perspective) where after finding his team in a 28-3 hole, the immortal Tom Brady led his team back from the dead by converting two 2-point conversions down the stretch to force overtime. Or did we witness the choking Falcons cough up the ball and lose vital field position due to questionable play calling and essentially hand the game over? Either way, the game was good. Also, the story lines were good. We had the awkwardness- waiting with bated breath to see how the Lombardi Trophy presentation from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would go down as he handed the hardware to the man with whom he fought tirelessly for the better part of two years (a.k.a. “deflate gate”). And we had the heartfelt tale– not knowing if Tom Brady’s ailing mother could even make it to the game, and then watching as Brady fell to his knees in victory as emotion swept through him as his mom watched from the stands.
What I noticed this week is that in an era where sports purists and team loyalty both seem in short supply, it was refreshing to see sports fantasy dwarfed by inescapable reality. Fantasy sports (football in particular) is no longer just a hobby, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry and its popularity is through the roof. Fans are gleefully trading in their Giant blue, Bronco orange, and Brown…brown in favor of drafting the best quarterback on the board, a running back from Dallas, a wide receiver from Pittsburgh, an entire defense from Seattle, and even a kicker from Baltimore. For 16 weeks we research receiving yard statistics on turf versus grass, monitor injury reports coming out of Arizona, and set our lineups just right. Until of course it wasn’t right at all and we add, trade, drop, and bench players the following week and cross our fingers all over again. This massive wave of fantasy football has changed our rooting habits to a stunning degree. NFL game ratings plummet on network television while the game-hopping NFL RedZone has never been more popular. We spend so little time actually tuned into our game anymore and instead we are plugged into bits and pieces of every game. In these attempts to never miss a moment, we end up missing the real substance that makes sports so captivating. Even NFL stadiums themselves have begun catering to this phenomenon by installing screens dedicated to displaying live fantasy stats from around the league in an effort to keep fans coming through the gates to watch reality football.
What Super Bowl LI gave us was a chance to see things in a new light (the old light) where we were fixated on two teams and two teams only, and we cheered players like James White and Robert Alford over the course of four hours; relative unknowns to whom we otherwise wouldn’t give a second look in the fantasy world. We watched the Falcons offense do a complete 180 from start to finish, we witnessed the craziest “no he didn’t” catch by Julian Edelman, and we soaked in all the storylines like they were our own. Super Bowl LI proved to us when it mattered most that when push comes to shove, fantasy sports remains reality’s bi*ch. All season you could almost hear Christopher Walken from Wedding Crashers pleading, “it wouldn’t kill you to play some competitive sports, once in a while, would it?” Even if only for a fleeting few hours, we got one hell of an answer on Super Bowl Sunday.