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How to Talk Sports: What You Need to Know about Football

Eager to climb the corporate ladder? Totally uninterested in professional sports? Finding this combination to be problematic? There’s a simple solution. You need to learn a new language. You need to learn how to talk sports.

Anyone who has been in a corporate setting for very long will have noticed that one of the core bonding rituals in many workplaces is a group discussion of professional sports (the sport of choice will vary by country, so ex-pats have it particularly hard.) The sports talk is usually seasonal, but not in the way a non-sports aficionado might imagine. In America in August, for example, you would think that baseball would be the topic, since the MLB season is in full swing at that point. But you’d be wrong: in most US offices, the topic in August is either the US Open tennis matches, or the upcoming NFL season.
You see? It’s a puzzle for many of us.

You could of course choose to opt out of the conversation, but you would do that at your peril. Personal connections, whether with clients, prospects, or colleagues are crucial to your success. Not to mention your happiness!

Alternatively, you could try to fake it by saying things like “How about those Patriots?” “Can you believe what the Cowboys are up to now?” “Will the Jets ever catch a break?” Nine times out of ten, this will be an appropriate comment that will start a conversation. The problem is, you won’t be able to hold up your end of the discussion after your initial volley.

We here at Dandelion Chandelier feel your pain, and we’re here to help. In our in-depth series, we’ll share just what you need to know about professional sports to converse with your colleagues, the CEO, your next-door-neighbor, your date, your partner, that nice guy at the dog run, your Uber driver, the barista/mixologist you have a crush on, the cashier at the bodega or the person sitting next to you in business class. ‘Cause you never know where the next great relationship might come from.

The Sports Desk has kindly agreed to go back to basics with us, and we promise we’ll give you just the bare minimum in order to be able to participate in a conversation about sports without embarrassing yourself or annoying anyone.
Irrespective of the sport, here are the basic facts that you should master as soon as possible: the months the sport is played; how many players are on a team; the name of the team you are rooting for (just pick one); the player everyone loves; the player everyone hates (there’s always one); the one issue that everyone is either excited about or complaining about (there’s always one); the name of the championship game, when it is played, and the name of the trophy (if there is one); who won the championship last year; and who the MVPs were (regular season and championship game.)

If you know all of that, you’re 80% of the way there. Toss off a couple of casual comments that cleverly alert your audience that you have these facts at your fingertips, and you’ll earn the right to stay in the conversation.

To get all the way to full preparedness, we’re going to go sport by sport and ‘splain what else you need to know (and not a single thing more). We’ve already covered Major League Baseball (MLB) 

Next up, as we head into the autumn, pro football and the National Football League (NFL). Heartfelt thanks to my friends in the football pool and to our Head of Research for their insights on America’s favorite sport.

The brief answers to the basic questions are: the regular NFL season begins the week after Labor Day and ends in early February; there are eleven players per team on the field at a time, and an NFL team can have up to 53 players; it’s your call, personally we love the Pats and the Lions; in a recent Statista survey, 11 percent of respondents named New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady as their favorite player, followed by Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rogers at 7%; shade is frequently thrown at Ben Roethlisberger (charged with assault twice, accused of being a drama queen) and at Cam Newton (twerking after touchdowns, losing the Super Bowl); one hot topic right now is concussions and other head injuries suffered by the players; the Super Bowl is played the first Sunday in February and the winning team is awarded the Vince Lombardi Trophy; in 2017 the New England Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, coming back from a 28-point deficit; MVP for the NFL regular season was Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons; MVP for the Super Bowl was Tom Brady, the Pats’ quarterback, who led his team to a stunning comeback overtime victory.

Here are the 10 other essential facts that you could reasonably be expected to know as a layperson:

1. Must know: The NFL has two conferences: the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Be sure that you know which one “your” team is in. Each conference consists of 16 teams and is divided into four divisions — East, West, North, and South — of four teams each. These division assignments don’t necessarily correspond to geography. For example, the Dallas Cowboys are in the NFC East. Go figure. Nice to Know: Each team plays the other teams in their respective division twice (home and away) during the regular season, in addition to 10 other games assigned to their schedule by the NFL. The regular season consists of 256 games; each team plays 16 games during a 17-week period. Extra credit: At the end of the season, the top six teams in each conference proceed to the playoffs: the four division winners, and the top two “wild card” teams. The two conference champions face each other in the Super Bowl.

2. Must know: While it may appear that NFL games are played randomly and continually throughout the week, as a general rule, every week there is one Thursday night game, one Sunday night game, and one Monday night game. The rest are all on Sunday afternoon (this is a very bad time to call, text, email or drop in unexpectedly on anyone who is a true NFL fan. Trust us on this one.) Nice to know: This means that you should expect NFL chatter from Those Who Follow Professional Sports on Friday morning about the Thursday night game; on Monday morning about all of the Sunday games; and on Tuesday morning about the Monday night game. Extra credit: While almost every game is played in the US, the NFL is trying to build a global fan base through its “International Series.” As a result, there will be four NFL games played in London during the 2017-18 season – the most ever in one season. There will also be one in Mexico City in mid-November that might have playoff implications. There are huge points in it for you with the true fans when you don’t look confused when someone inevitably mentions Twickenham Stadium this fall.

3. Must know: The NFL has a Commissioner (the CEO of the league). The current one is Roger Goodell, and he’s been in the role since August 2006. Nice to know: The Commissioner is chosen by a vote of the owners of the NFL teams, and keeps the job until the owners decide to appoint a new one, or until he or she resigns. Goodell is only the eighth Commish in the history of the league; his predecessor Paul Tagliabue served for 17 years. Extra credit: For a variety of reasons, many avid NFL fans are not Goodell fans. A primary reason is that he’s in charge of disciplining NFL coaches and players, and does so with relatively few constraints and with limited avenues of recourse for those sanctioned. Recent examples include suspending Tom Brady for 4 games over “Deflate-gate,” and imposing some of the most severe sanctions in the league’s 92-year history in “Bounty-gate,” an incident in which members of the New Orleans Saints were accused of paying out bonuses (or “bounties”) for injuring the opposing team’s players. These actions are (perhaps unfairly) resented by some players and some fans (as is his pay package, which totals $34 million annually – higher than all but one player in the league.)

4. Must know: At the start of the 2017-18 season, the experts’ view is that the best team in the AFC is the New England Patriots. There’s less consensus on the NFC: some say the division titles is the Falcons’ to lose, some say the Seattle Seahawks are the team to beat. Nice to know: The current consensus is that Super Bowl LII – which will be played on Sunday, February 4th, 2018 in Minneapolis – will see the Patriots oppose either the Seahawks or the Green Bay Packers. Extra credit: In addition to these three, you won’t look foolish mentioning the Atlanta Falcons, the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers as “teams to watch this year.” The Dallas Cowboys, on the other hand, are quickly becoming the bad boys of the NFL: running back Zeke Elliott was just suspended for 6 games for misconduct off the field, dealing a significant blow to the team’s chances this year.

5. Must know: There are many awards other than MVP bestowed annually in the NFL – they’re given during a television special held the night before the Super Bowl. Nice to know: You could win some serious street cred by knowing the names of any of these winners: Coach of the Year was the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett; Offensive Player of the Year was the Falcons’ Matt Ryan and Defensive Player of the Year was the Raiders’ Khalil Mack. Extra credit: The Rookies of the Year were the LA Chargers’ Joey Bosa on defense and the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott on offense.

6. Must know: There are currently no NFL teams for sale. Nice to know: The Carolina Panthers could be for sale sometime in the near future. Their owner, Jerry Richardson, is advancing in age, having some health issues, and has cut his sons out of the picture, making a sale more likely. Extra credit: The last NFL team sold was the Buffalo Bills, for $1.4 billion to Terry Pegula.

7. Must Know: The most striking hot-button issue in the NFL at the moment concerns quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who set off a storm of media attention last fall by “taking a knee” rather than standing as the national anthem was sung at the beginning of each 49ers game. His gesture was meant to draw attention to police violence against black men, and was adopted by a few other players throughout the league. Nice to know: Kaepernick opted out of the final year of his contract with the 49ers at the end of last season, walking away from a guaranteed $14.5 million salary to become a free agent. The team granted his release, and he has remained a free agent deep into the off-season. Extra Credit: The Baltimore Ravens are considering picking Kaepernick up, and there is active discussion about whether their final decision will be based on his football skills or on the lingering controversy surrounding the player and his social activism.

8. Must know: Football is hugely popular in the US: in a recent survey, 70% of US consumers described themselves as “fans of the NFL” and in January 2017, 30% of Americans named football as their favorite sport (baseball was a distant second at 16%); Statista reports that in spring 2008, 58.3 million people were “very” interested in the NFL – by spring 2016, it had grown to 67.3 million (65% of 30 to 44 year-olds said that they follow the NFL, and 32% follow it “very closely”.) Nice to know: Despite that, TV ratings dropped in the 2016-17 season at a worrisome rate. Extra credit: A poll of more than 9,200 television viewers recently conducted by J.D. Powers revealed that 26% percent of viewers cited the national anthem protests as the reason they watched less football; 24% said that it was because of the league’s off-field image issues, such as domestic abuse; 20% cited “excessive commercials,” and 16% said they tuned out because of the presidential election.

9. Must know: National television rights for NFL games are shared across NBC (Thursday night), FOX (Super Bowl), CBS (Thursday night), ESPN (Monday night) and the NFL Network (simulcasting games on CBS and NBC, plus pre-season). Nice to know: Streaming rights are sold separately: Twitter began streaming NFL broadcasts last season with its Thursday Night Football package and Yahoo streamed an NFL game in London. This year Amazon replaces Twitter, and will stream 10 Thursday night games (you must be a Prime member to access them) and Yahoo parent Verizon will stream the September 24 game in London on AOL, go90 and Complex, a site Verizon co-owns with Hearst Corp. Extra credit: Streaming is still in its infancy – last season on Thursday night, Twitter averaged less than 300,000 viewers per minute, while CBS and NBC averaged 15.8 million viewers. Nevertheless, the rights are expensive: Amazon paid the NFL $50 million, and Verizon $21 million (for one game in London plus the rights to stream Thursday games on its mobile apps.)

10. Must know: NFL announcers can become stars in their own right, and some fans would say that the broadcasters can make or break the viewing experience. Nice to know: the current sentimental favorite MLB announcer is 72-year old Al Michaels, who had been a sportscaster for nearly 3 decades at ABC; he’s currently employed by the NFL Network and NBC Sports, calling Sunday Night Football with Cris Collingsworth. Joe Buck of Fox Sports has won several Sports Emmys and has been named National Sportscaster of the Year three times. Extra credit: Retired Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo will be the number-one analyst on CBS this season, partnering with Jim Nantz and replacing Phil Simms in the role.

One last bit of advice? If you want to be totally up to speed every week, check out our new feature here at Dandelion Chandelier, the Weekly TWIST – This Week in Sports Talk. We publish it every Sunday, and it has the three – and only three – things you need to know in order to talk sports like a champion all week long. Read it every week, and we promise you’ll never drop the ball.


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