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Changes in 2023’s NFL TV coverage will mark the end of an era

Particularly for older fans who grew up watching the AFL, the 2023 NFL season will often feel different.

Curt Gowdy, NBC Broadcaster - File Photos
Longtime NBC broadcaster Curt Gowdy calls a game at the Oakland Coliseum.
Photo by NBC Photo by Chris Haston/WireImage

On March 16 — when most NFL fans were focused on free agents who were signing contracts with new teams — NBC Sports’ Mike Florio published an article on “Pro Football Talk” about how the New York Jets will be a bigger television draw if they are actually able to conclude a trade for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Kansas City Chiefs fans might not have taken notice of this piece, which included a nugget of information that was news to me — and might be news to you, too.

Adding to the scheduling intrigue is the fact that, for the first time, all lines between the AFC and NFC package will be obliterated in 2023. CBS is no longer the presumed home of all non-prime-time AFC vs. AFC 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 the Baltimore Indianapolis Colts, Cleveland Browns Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers from the larger, senior league) became the 13 teams of the NFL’s American Football Conference. The remaining 13 NFL teams became the National Football Conference of the new 26-team league.

But one thing stayed the same: most games played by AFC teams continued to be covered by NBC, which had been televising the AFL since 1965. Announcers like Curt Gowdy, Jim Simpson and Charlie Jones had become familiar voices to AFL fans — and continued to call the games being played by their teams in the expanded NFL.

I’ve always felt badly for the fans in Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, who suddenly had to listen to entirely new announcing crews call the games of their favorite teams.

But AFC fans got a taste of that in 1998, when CBS — which had been outbid for the NFC games by the upstart FOX network beginning with the 1994 season — paid the league $4 billion for an eight-year deal to broadcast the AFC’s games. Suddenly, voices like those of Dick Enberg, Marv Albert and Don Criqui gave way to those of unfamiliar announcers like Greg Gumbel, Verne Lundquist and Ian Eagle.

CBS did manage to maintain some continuity by hiring former NBC color analysts like 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 through 1993.

But while the changes made in 1994 and 1998 were jarring for fans of both conferences, they eventually grew accustomed to the styles of their new “home” networks — because ever 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 carried on FOX — while Cowboys fans under a certain age are unaccustomed to their games being called by CBS crews.

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 will eventually become a good thing. It’s probably better that when a current FOX announcer like Kevin Burkhardt, Kenny Albert or Chris Myers is calling 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 like Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago.

After more than five decades, however, it’s probably past time for that distinction to end. While change is often hard, it is also — as always — inevitable.

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