The NFL has been on the defensive in recent months, as a series of issues has threatened to tarnish the sport’s meticulously polished image.
The league had to make adjustments to satisfy a federal judge that its proposed settlement of concussion-related litigation brought by former players was sufficient. It faced criticism for its handling of the controversy over the Washington Redskins’ team name and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s admitted mistake in imposing only a two-game suspension on Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for a domestic violence incident.
Now the regular season is about to begin Thursday night in Seattle, with the defending-champion Seahawks hosting the Green Bay Packers, and the sport’s leaders can only hope that the public’s attention returns squarely to on-field matters and remains focused there. But even as the league has been busy of late dealing with such turbulence, experts say they sense no threat, now or into the foreseeable future, to the NFL’s king-of-the-mountain status as the nation’s most popular and prosperous professional sport.
“I think there’s only an issue if fans and sponsors and TV partners think there’s a chronic problem with the league, that it can’t get its act together and address these things effectively and be responsive,” said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “There’s no indication that we’re there. I don’t think it’s a major problem right now. The league is not in danger of dying by 1,000 cuts.”
The new season dawns with the NFL still firmly entrenched as television ratings gold. The Seahawks’ 43-8 Super Bowl triumph over the Denver Broncos in February was, even with its lopsided score, the most watched TV program in history, with 111.5 million viewers on Fox. Last season’s AFC and NFC title games averaged 53.7 million viewers each, matching 2011 for the most watched conference championships since 1982.
According to the league, NFL games had 205 million unique viewers last season, representing 70 percent of the country’s potential viewers and 81 percent of TV homes. Regular season games averaged 17.6 million viewers last year. Of the 35 most watched television shows during last year’s fall programming, 34 were NFL games; an NFL game was that week’s highest-rated show in each of the 17 weeks of the 2013 regular season. The average viewership of NFL games on broadcast TV increased 31 percent from 2003 to 2013, going from 15.5 million to 20.3 million.
The league’s annual revenues currently are estimated to be about $10 billion, with some projections that they could reach $25 billion by 2027. According to the latest annual estimates by Forbes magazine, 25 of the 32 NFL franchise are worth at least $1 billion; the Dallas Cowboys are estimated to be worth $3.2 billion and Forbes also puts the New England Patriots, Redskins and New York Giants above $2 billion. Goodell was paid $44.2 million in 2012, according to the NFL’s most recent annual tax filing.
“The owners pay for performance, guys,” former NFL defensive lineman Sean Gilbert said on a conference call last week with reporters during which he outlined his plan to run for executive director of the players’ union next year. “And Roger Goodell is the highest-paid performer in the NFL.”
Could any of the controversial matters faced by the league in recent months ultimately cause, or contribute to, the undoing of the league’s business model? Several sports business experts said they seriously doubt that but added that, in their view, the player safety issue looms the largest for the NFL.
“I think the medical issues are the ones that could matter long term,” Carter said. “I’m not talking about the legal issues. I’m talking about parents being confident that the sport is safe for their children. If there’s a sense of unease about that in the public and you see business partners and sponsors getting uncomfortable, that’s when it would become an issue.”
U.S. District Judge Anita Brody gave preliminary approval in July to the proposed settlement in the concussion-related litigation after the NFL agreed to lift a $675 million cap on the amount of funds available to players with valid claims. Brody initially had rejected a proposed $765 million settlement because of that cap, expressing concerns whether the funds would be sufficient to cover players with valid claims. The settlement is designed to last for at least 65 years.
“I think the only issue that has real potential is the injuries,” sports economist Roger Noll said. “I would put it at the level of something they need to be worried about, but unlikely to topple them. If I were an NFL owner, I would be more worried about what it could do to me on the cost side than on the revenue side. When people sit and watch games, I don’t think they worry about the injuries…. I don’t think it’s a real existential threat unless they behave stupidly.”
Noll said he thinks the biggest threat to the NFL’s overwhelming popularity is the very nature of consumerism in present-day America.
“There’s almost nothing that lasts for 30 years,” said Noll, a professor emeritus in Stanford University’s economics department. “The NFL and, really, the major professional sports in general have had a huge run of popularity. That’s very unusual. If I had to guess what’s going to get them, what’s going to threaten their business, it’s the fragmentation of their audience because of the Internet. It’s already done a good job on other forms of entertainment, on television programming, on print media, on music. It fragments our interest. If I were the NFL, I would find a way to expand my product space there.”
Goodell and the league were criticized heavily after Goodell decided in late July to suspend Rice for two games for an incident in February in which Rice allegedly struck Janay Palmer, then his fiancée and now his wife, in a hotel elevator in Atlantic City. Media members and fans on social media called the penalty insufficient and said that Goodell and the league sent the wrong message about their attitude toward domestic violence.
Last week, Goodell announced in a letter to team owners that he was toughening the sport’s penalties for domestic violence, with a first-time offender now facing a six-game suspension and a repeat offender subject to a lifetime ban reviewable after one year.
“I didn’t get it right,” Goodell, who initially had defended the punishment, wrote of the Rice suspension in last week’s letter to the owners. “Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”
Goodell and the league also have been supportive of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s unwavering stance that he won’t change his team’s name, which some Native American groups and others have called a racial slur. Goodell has said the league and team must be sensitive to all views but he, like Snyder, has said the name is not intended to be offensive. The league and team both have cited polling that indicates, in their view, that there is no widespread public support for a name change. Other owners have left the handling of the Redskins’ name controversy to Snyder and Goodell, and that apparently is not about to change.
“I think the prevailing sentiment [among the owners] is to leave that to the team and the league,” one person familiar with the NFL’s internal thinking on the matter said recently, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. That view was confirmed by a second person with knowledge of the inner workings of the league office.
Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, said in March that the NFL is getting greedy and will provoke its own downfall by giving fans too much football. Some of the sport’s package of Thursday night games this season will be carried by CBS, in addition to the league-owned NFL Network. The league scheduled two Saturday games for late this season as well.
But Carter said there is no evidence that NFL fans believe they’re being given too much of the product. He also said the NFL’s stature means that any missteps, real or perceived, will be high profile.
“You see time after time in business that when you’re successful and you grow to a certain point—and the NFL is the biggest thing in this industry — a lot of people are going to go after Goliath,” Carter said. “These things are going to continue to pop up. They’re going to continue to percolate. In some cases, you see businesses ignore these things and fail to recognize what they mean and fail to address them. I don’t sense the NFL is going to allow itself to fall into that category long term.”