HBO’s Hard Knocks

HD NFL football on a big screen is amazing, and far more exciting than being at the actual game.  But the most interesting thing about football for me is the anthropology behind it, and this aspect is best documented in HBO’s annual mini-series, Hard Knocks:  Training Camp.  It’s a 5ish episode-long series that covers a different NFL team every pre-season training camp; this year they covered the Cincinnati Bengals, last year they covered the Dallas Cowboys.

I don’t talk about television much, but if I see some niche show that doesn’t get play or explanation, then I’ll get curious and write about it, like I did with the Japanese show VIKING:  The Ultimate Obstacle Course Challenge, whose genre has now grown into the Ultimate Ninja Warrior etc. shows you see on G4TV (right now there’s a series for picking the next UNW from the US).

The Hard Knocks annual series is short, but it shows rookies, veterans, and superstars as they prepare to leave for camp, as they get acclimated to the daily grind of training, and as they fight through scrimmages and become a team.  In it you see glimpses of the goofing off, the strange vocabulary used to describe different plays (that players must be able to recall within seconds or else they’ll get burned on the play), the hazing of rookies, the disparity of treatment of rookies and superstars, and the lives of kids barely out of high school thrusted into the limelight with million dollar salaries.

I started watching during the first season Hard Knocks aired (2001) when they covered the Ravens; the best moments were when Tony Siragusa, a veteran, locked the rookies in a trailer, and when they showed Shannon Sharpe’s (veteran) ridiculously tenacious training regimen.

The Cowboys series had this gem, when Roy Williams makes fun of Terrell Owens running on the beach:

The Bengals episodes also document the “Oklahoma drill”, a football drill that pits linemen against each other in a brief, explosive brawl:

This year’s Bengals season shows Chad Ochocinco, a great showman, dealing with a capricious NFL that curbs Twitter and Ustream, the two sites he uses to reach out and interact with his fans directly.

This is where it gets frustrating.  The NFL is doing this, while the NBA is doing things like fining rookie Brandon Jennings for twittering.  Needless to say (and from my own experiences getting in trouble for blogging/using social media), big organizations still don’t understand how their customers prefer to enjoy the experience they create.

Social media is one thing, but what’s inexcusable in the case of Hard Knocks is that HBO and the NFL don’t even make the Hard Knocks series available on DVD or online, once the episodes have aired on HBO and the NFL Network!  In other words, if I wanted to purchase Hard Knocks or rent it, I wouldn’t be able to unless I caught it on TV.  Sort of a live performance type of experience.

This makes no sense.  It makes me ask one of my personal “Rules of Running Successful Business” questions:  I want to give you money!  Why are you making it so hard for me to give you money?

The Wikipedia page of course has more info on it than the actual site.  And it’s likely that even the YouTube videos I post here will stop working once HBO or the NFL catches wind of them.  Why do companies do this?  Why do they need to control distribution even at the threat of losing their own word of mouth force multiplier?  How can they make money with such bad operating practices?

It’s really a shame, because the NFL is sitting on a massive goldmine with letting people see behind the gridiron and into the business, training, and raising of NFL athletes and organizations.  Hard Knocks is just a little taste of what the NFL is really like, and what we end up seeing every weekend is just a facade; in fact it took the recent policy shift from the NFL on treating NFL players’ concussions with more gravity to show that the game is less like a video game with faceless players and more of one where kids start off playing peewee football, train their entire school careers, and then cash in in the NFL, only to become feebled old hobbling elderly men.

Hard Knocks shows the humanity of the game, and I’d argue the NFL could use more of it.

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