Especially for older fans who grew up watching the AFL, the 2023 NFL season will often feel different.
On March 16 — when most NFL fans were focused on free agents signing contracts with new teams — NBC Sports' Mike Florio posted an article on “Pro Football Talk” about how New York Jets will be a bigger TV draw if they can actually make a deal for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Kansas City Chiefs fans may not have noticed this piece, which contained a wealth of information that was news to me — and may be news to you, too.
Adding to the schedule intrigue is the fact that for the first time, all lines between the AFC and NFC pack will be obliterated in 2023. CBS is no longer the presumed home of all AFC vs. AFC non-prime time games and all AFC vs NFC games, when the AFC team is the visitor.
And with those 53 words, the last vestiges of the American Football League finally disappeared.
Oh, sure… the AFL and NFL merged in 1970. The following season, the former AFL teams (along with
Baltimore Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers from the larger, senior league) became the 13 teams in the NFL's American Football Conference. The remaining 13 NFL teams became the National Football Conference in the new 26-team league.
But one thing remained the same: most games played by AFC teams continued to be covered by NBC, which had broadcast the AFL since 1965. Announcers such as Curt Gowdy, Jim Simpson and Charlie Jones had become familiar voices to AFL fans – and continued to call the games played by their team in the expanded NFL.
I've always felt bad for the fans in Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, who suddenly had to listen to brand new announce teams calling their favorite teams' games.
But AFC fans got a taste of it in 1998, when CBS — which had been outbid for NFC games by the upstart FOX network beginning in the 1994 season — paid the league $4 billion for an eight-year deal to broadcast AFC games. Suddenly, voices like those of Dick Enberg, Marv Albert and Don Criqui gave way to those of unknown announcers like Greg Gumbel, Verne Lundquist and Ian Eagle.
CBS managed to maintain some continuity by hiring former NBC color analysts such as Phil Simms, Randy Cross and Beasley Reece. And in Kansas City, fans were sometimes treated to games called by Kevin Harlan, who had been the team's radio announcer from 1985 to 1993.
But while the changes made in 1994 and 1998 were jarring to fans of both conferences, they eventually grew accustomed to the styles of their new “home” networks – because since then, FOX and CBS have continued to hold those contracts. Younger Chiefs fans, for example, have never known what it's like to have most of the team's games on FOX — while Cowboys fans below a certain age are used to having their games called by CBS teams.
But starting in 2023, it will be impossible to predict which network will carry a particular game. And in many ways, this homogenization of the league's television coverage comes eventually become a good thing. It's probably better that when a current FOX announcer like Kevin Burkhardt, Kenny Albert or Chris Myers calls a Chiefs game, fans at home won't feel like they're wearing someone else's underwear.
But for older fans (like myself) who grew up watching the AFL instead of the NFL, this separation of the league's AFC and NFC television coverage has continued to remind us that our football DNA is a little different than it is for fans in cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago.
After more than five decades, however, it is probably time for that distinction to end. Although change is often difficult, it is also – as always – inevitable.
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