NFL ratings were down 8 percent in 2016, a source of consternation for league officials and network heads. Why the slump? According to a recent poll, recently disinterested fans offered a number of reasons. Disgust over national anthem knee-droppers like Colin Kaepernick led the pack, followed by domestic abuse scandals, frustration over excessive commercial breaks, and competition from the 2016 presidential election.
I don’t buy it. Well, I sort of buy it. I’m sure that people experienced genuine moral outrage, irritation, and distraction during the 2016 NFL season. I just don’t think they would have gotten outraged, irritated, or distracted enough to turn off games if the league hadn’t become so boring in recent years.
As the numbers seem to indicate, most fans still love their hometown heroes, but after a decade-plus of cracking down on showboating and legislating the game in favor of nerdy, charisma-challenged quarterbacks, the NFL has few superstars to pique interest beyond state borders. Green Bay and Chicago diehards may still enjoy that storied conflict, for example, but for everyone else, there’s nothing terribly intriguing about Aaron Rodgers versus whatever sentient tackling dummy the Bears are calling a quarterback this week. When the greatest rivalry of the last few seasons has been the courtroom battle between Tom Brady and league commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s not hard to see why fans have grown apathetic.
So Let’s Inject Some Food Drama into Football
How should the NFL fix its ratings woes? It’s important to remember that, more than people love their hometown sports teams, they love their hometown cookin’. And more than they hate their team’s bitterest rival, they hate every other area’s variation on the same fare. Tell a Packers fan that you prefer the Bills and he’ll yawn. Tell him that upstate New York’s dairy farms produce superior cheddar and he’ll impale his foam cheesehead into your sternum.
Likewise, countless foodies from across the nation have developed strong allegiances to cuisine of certain regions even when they’re not from those regions. Therefore, all the league needs to do to reignite America’s waning passion for professional football is link it to our waxing passion for the food wars. Realign the teams according to culinary rivalries, up the stakes with some major food-related punishments for losing the division, and the NFL will return to form as a ratings behemoth. As a gesture of goodwill to the league, I’ve already drawn up the plans.
You’ll notice my ten-division, 30-team plan has eliminated the Cincinnati Bengals and the New York Jets. Cincinnati, you had 239 years to create some unique regional fare and the best you came up with was “chili with spaghetti in it.” You’re gone. As for the Jets, that franchise is being eliminated purely for butt-fumble related crimes.
Pizza Division: New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams
“What kind of pizza is best?” This is America’s greatest culinary question, so it’s fitting to pit representatives of three major traditions against each other—New York style versus Chicago style versus California style. Or, to put it more accurately, actual pizza versus pizza-themed casserole versus free range avocado honey-basil aioli flatbread nonsense that your daughter’s vegetarian boyfriend tried to make you eat shortly before his mysterious disappearance.
As it currently stands, a late-season matchup between the 3-12 Bears and the 4-11 Rams wouldn’t appeal to anyone, but this system would provide an easy fix. Simply declare that the division loser has to exclusively serve the universally abhorred St. Louis-style pizza at next year’s games, then watch fans tremble at the thought of consuming Provel-covered-garbage-crackers. That’s better drama than anything on AMC.
Barbecue Division: Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are certainly not America’s team, but Texas may very well be home to America’s barbecue. Let the representatives of Kansas City ribs and Carolina pulled pork challenge the Lone Star State for bragging rights, and slow-cooking enthusiasts from other parts of the nation might actually pay attention to the Chiefs and the Panthers again.
Division winner makes the playoffs. Division loser still gets to sell its preferred type of brisket at games but has to slather it in ketchup first.
Crustacean Division: New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints
Chowda versus soft-shell crab versus gumbo. The Ravens are a chronically uninteresting team. The Patriots and the Saints will join them in Boringland after Brady and Drew Brees retire. This seafood-inspired rivalry, however, would ensure that all three teams are worth watching for years to come. Lose the division and the Gordon’s Fisherman becomes your team mascot.
Sandwich Division: Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles
The Cuban is a mouthwatering masterpiece. Pittsburgh’s Primanti Bro’s French-fry-and-coleslaw-stuffed thing is equal parts absurd and delicious. The Philly cheesesteak, however, is undeniably the acme of American sandwiches.
That said, Philadelphia fans are undeniably the worst in the NFL, and perpetually missing the playoffs is not sufficient punishment for booing Santa Claus in 1968. It’s fitting, therefore, that we should humble the vulgar and rebellious citizens of Philadelphia by making them hang the “our city has inferior sandwiches” banner from their stadium’s rafters every time their cross-state rival hangs the division champion banner from theirs.
Taco Division: Los Angeles Chargers, Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals
Getting Los Angeles residents to care about an NFL team has proven to be a challenge throughout the decades. Perhaps they’ll embrace the recently relocated Chargers if, instead of defending a football squad, they’re actually defending fish tacos against the taunts of Tex-Mex and Sonoran-style aficionados.
Division loser has to make its quarterback wear a cone of shame fashioned from an oversized Taco Bell chalupa shell.
Deep Fried Sadness Division: Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders
What do people actually eat in Cleveland, Detroit, and Las Vegas? It’s difficult to say. Pose that question to residents of these cities and they usually start weeping over a lifetime of poor decisions before they manage to whimper out an answer. As best as anthropologists can tell, citizens of these cities subsist mostly on a diet of regret, embittered nostalgia, and curly fries.
Division winner gets its own version of a hot dog. The loser has to change its stadium name to “The Arby’s Roast-Beef-and-Sorrow-Dome.”
Casserole Division: Minnesota Vikings, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers
Minnesota and Indianapolis, I call you both home, but you know good and well that no one outside of your borders has ever said, “Hey let’s go to that Twin Cities-themed restaurant that’s right across from the Hoosier comfort food place.” Green Bay, you’re great at what you do, but cheese is an ingredient, not a meal. Wisconsin dairy doesn’t count as cuisine any more than Nebraska grain does.
Let’s be honest. The only place where your respective recipes are in heavy rotation is at church potlucks. So let your teams compete over that. Division winner gets to publish the official hot dish cookbook of the NFL and have Wilford Brimley lead the crowd in chants of “DI-a-BEET-us” at home games. Loser gets Garrison Keillor as an announcer. (Spoiler alert: Keillor will just emit elitist smarm posing as folksy anecdotes instead of doing play-by-play, but you already knew that.)
Brownies Division: Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers
Losing team has to pay for my therapy after Illinois gets on the pot-legalizing bandwagon and I have to repeatedly answer the question, “Pastor, why can’t we start a weed ministry like the hipster evangelical church down the street?”
Jimmy Buffet Presents Margaritaville Express Conveniently Located at Terminal D of the Orlando International Airport, Adjacent to the Chili’s-to-the-Max Division: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington Redskins
President Trump’s greatest bipartisan move will be Executive Order 1189-B, which moves the Washington Redskins to Florida and changes the team name to the Fort Lauderdale Parrotheads. Their fans will be chipper and carefree but will also get visibly annoyed when singers get too doggone jazzy with the National Anthem.
The loser of the Margaritaville Division has to make devotees try Vietnamese food in order to keep their season tickets.
Chicken Division: Buffalo Bills, Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans
Buffalo wings versus southern fried chicken versus Nashville hot chicken. This is an argument that has all the passion of political debate with none of the stupidity—something America desperately needs.
Plus, as promised, it would do wonders for NFL ratings. Under the current system, you can’t reasonably expect anybody outside of Buffalo, Atlanta, and Nashville to care about those teams. But decree that the loser of the chicken division has to give PETA protestors 5,000 free tickets to every home game the following season, and 50 million humiliation-hungry viewers will gladly tune in to a game they otherwise wouldn’t have watched because the teams involved are more boring than those celery and mayonnaise sandwiches I hear are all the rage in Cincinnati.