In an alternate universe where the Falcons win the Super Bowl, would we rather have Arthur Blank or Matt Ryan accept the trophy? And what does the NFL's fixation on its owners as celebrities have to do with a new Falcons stadium?
The European version of the Super Bowl is the Champions League Final. That match is the culmination of a season-long tournament between the most successful soccer clubs in Europe, stretching from Portugal to Kazakhstan. At the close of the final, the head of UEFA (the governing body for soccer in Europe) presents the Champions League trophy to the captain of the winning team.
Last May, FC Barcelona won the Champions League for the third time in six years. On the two previous recent occasions that the club won the title, the trophy was presented to team captain Carles Puyol. Puyol is an iconic figure, a native Catalan who came up through the team's youth ranks and is noted both for being a great leader on the field and for looking like a caveman (or at least a Dokken roadie). When Barcelona won the title last May, Puyol gave the honor of lifting the trophy to Eric Abidal, the team's French left back. Abidal had had an excellent season for Barca, playing both left and center back because of injuries, before he was felled by a liver tumor early in 2011. Abidal recovered in time to play in the Final, where he shut down Manchester United right-winger Antonio Valencia. Thus, there were few fans around the world who weren't a little touched by the scene of Abidal receiving the Champions League trophy from his countryman Michel Platini, himself a French legend who led the French side that won the European Cup in 1984 and made the semifinals of the World Cup in 1982 and 1986.
Forgive me for sounding like a Eurosnob* for a moment, but the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy last night didn't quite have the same flair. (Watch trophy presentation video here.)
Instead of a football icon handing the trophy over, we get Roger Goodell, a life-long NFL suit who is most noted for giving himself the power to suspend players for any reason he sees fit and for persuading Peter King to write the most sycophantic cover story that I can recall reading in Sports Illustrated. Instead of a club totem like Puyol or a cancer-survivor like Abidal accepting the trophy, we had the New York Giants' owners getting the honor. Puyol and Abidal got the right to hold the trophy aloft because they established themselves as some of the best players in the world at their positions; John Mara and Steve Tisch got the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy because they inherited the team from their parents. On the list of individuals about whom Giants fans were feeling very strong affection last night, I doubt that the team's owners were in the top 20.
At the risk of coming off like a woefully under-qualified amateur sociologist, the trophy presentation at the Super Bowl is emblematic of a problem with American pro sports generally and the NFL specifically. The NFL is a relentlessly marketed product that runs roughshod over any people or groups that are in the way of institutionalized profits. Whereas European soccer contains all sorts of financial rewards for clubs that are run properly (most notably, qualification and progression in the Champions League generates tens of millions of Euros in additional revenue) and penalties for clubs that are run poorly (ask a fan of Leeds United, one of the biggest clubs in England, about what relegation means), NFL teams are a license to print money for their owners. Salary costs are controlled, TV deals are standardized, and even an incompetent boob like Mike Brown can see his franchise make money. In Europe, the Cincinnati Bengals would be in the third division. In the NFL, they are profitable.
Part of the equation for NFL teams making money is the fact that the League has left the nation's second-largest market without a team so all the other teams in the League can extort concessions for their local governments. In a league run on free market principles, Los Angeles would have at least two teams. In a plutocracy like the NFL, that market is used for leverage.
That finally brings me to the Falcons and the Georgia Dome. ("Finally," says my editor, wondering if there was a local angle anywhere in our future.) I can't speak for others, but I have never gone to the Georgia Dome and thought to myself "man, this facility just won't do." The Dome is centrally located and access is fairly simple, especially on Marta. With the development of the Centennial Park area and Marietta Street, there are a host of options for eating and drinking before a game. Inside, the facility isn't run down in any meaningful way. The sight lines are good, the amenities are nice, and, most importantly, the place is loud.
Despite the fact that there is no good reason to replace the Georgia Dome, the team's ownership is trying to do exactly that. The NFL and the Falcons are currently trying to overcome significant local opposition by dangling the carrot of a Super Bowl that the vast majority of local fans would not be able to attend. The stick of "we'll move to Los Angeles" has not been used and would seem to be an empty threat in light of the fact that the franchise is healthy in every meaningful way.
The question of whether the Falcons will get a new stadium will be an interesting test for the NFL. At present, the prospects do not look good. With the coffers of city, county, and state government relatively empty, there is no public appetite for spending money on the local pro football franchise. Will the Falcons be able to overcome that local opposition in the way that other teams have done so? Will improvement in the economy change the public's mood? Regardless, the fact that the Falcons have seriously raised the concept of replacing a stadium that they have occupied for only 20 seasons is emblematic of a league that seeks to portray owners as the heroes at the end of the Super Bowl, as opposed to the elite players who literally bash their brains in to win the Lombardi Trophy.