As NFL owners met in Boston this week, taking care of league business such as selecting future Super Bowl sites, another whisper made the rounds: Is America’s most powerful game growing even more dominant?
Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday that the league will move its draft from late April to early or mid-May next year to avoid a scheduling conflict at Radio City Music Hall, the event’s longtime home. “For us to do it the right way,” Goodell said, “we don’t see any choice but to move the date.”
The switch not only resolves a scheduling snafu, however. It also represents a convenient way for the NFL to take its latest step toward a master plan of dominating the sports calendar. Tuesday’s announcement, and other discussed changes to the NFL offseason, could expand pro football’s presence throughout the year – and provide additional proof that the NFL, with its own powerful television network and a draft that’s more popular than other sports’ playoff games, is taking over the sports world.
Maybe it’s a dream scenario for pro football fans, but some of the lesser-known residents of the NFL universe are already worried about how they’ll adapt.
“A simple recipe for disaster,” said player agent Ron Slavin, who thinks the changes to the NFL calendar could be harmful to players, potentially adding new health and financial threats, as well as threatening his own livelihood.
This, of course, is to say nothing of those who live outside the NFL bubble, including Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, whose influence has been overshadowed for years by the sports giant with seemingly endless demand, revenue streams and television appeal.
An estimated 7.7 million television viewers saw the first night of the NFL draft last month, an event whose highlights include burly, unproven young men holding up jerseys. A fraction of that number watched that Thursday evening’s second-most-viewed sporting event, an NBA playoff game featuring the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies.
Next May, the draft will be held in the heart of the NBA and NHL playoffs, competing with them for eyeballs and advertising dollars. Mid-May also happens to be television’s sweeps period, when TV ratings are most heavily valued. Considering the NFL’s shrewd business moves over the past decade, that Radio City scheduling problem offered quite the coincidental benefit.
Goodell said the league hasn’t decided whether to keep the draft in May beyond next year, but with success next spring – Goodell said the draft will be either May 8-10 or May 15-17 – another wave of changes could follow.
The NFL is interested in pushing its popular scouting combine — when college prospects work out for days in front of league talent evaluators — from late-February to mid-March, and moving the start of free agency from March to early April. The league has also raised the possibility of further pushing back the Super Bowl, possibly to as late as the President’s Day weekend in mid-February.
“On the other events . . . we think there’s great benefits to that,” Goodell said. “We didn’t reach any conclusion. We are negotiating that with the union. We have a discussion with them sometime in the next couple weeks. I’m sure that will come up. We think that’s a good change for the fans and for football.”
Goodell technically could change the dates of the draft without the NFL Players Association’s consent. The union would have to agree to change the start of the league year — and thus, the opening of free agency. But Goodell said he wants the entire process to be done cooperatively.
“This is not secretive,” Goodell said. “We share what the overall strategy is, what we’re trying to accomplish, with the players. We went to them initially to do that, to get their feedback. And we want to make sure we do it right, and that includes getting player input in that.”
The NFL’s relentless encroachment on the sports calendar has not elicited any public griping from its sports brethren — the other pro leagues. Major League Baseball wasn’t notified in advance about the NFL’s plans to move its draft to May, an MLB official said Tuesday. Baseball officials are still miffed at the NFL’s attempt to strong-arm the Baltimore Orioles into moving their Sept. 5 home game in order to accommodate the Baltimore Ravens, who, by virtue of winning February’s Super Bowl, would have hosted the NFL’s traditional season opener the same night. When the Orioles and MLB wouldn’t budge, the NFL shifted the Ravens’ opener to the road.
Even those inside the NFL machine are finding they will have to adjust to the league’s ongoing growth. Some stand to benefit more than others.
Scott Pucek is a trainer and coach who has prepared members of the last 17 draft classes at the Athletes’ Performance training complexes, with facilities in Arizona, Texas and Florida. These immersion training outfits, which offer nutrition, wellness and coaching leading to the combine, have become increasingly popular in recent years. The costs, often fronted by players’ agents, can climb upward of $10,000 for the eight-week program. With more time between the college season and the draft, and a potential push of the combine, that means more weeks of training, and more dollars coming in.
“This industry and this service that we’re delivering has just exploded over the last 10 or 15 years,” Pucek said Tuesday.
Slavin, the player agent, warned a lengthened schedule could tempt college prospects to overtrain, leading to more injuries, and further add to the restlessness among the young men during the months before the draft. These itches are often scratched by spending, Slavin said, sometimes using money from high-interest loans, signed against NFL earnings a player won’t collect for months.
“They get antsy,” he said. “The last two weeks of April are the worst two weeks of my life every year.”
The players’ union, according to people familiar with earlier discussions with the league, has so far balked at a later start to free agency. NFLPA officials argued that players don’t want to wait any longer to find out where they’ll play and how much they’ll be paid.
A person familiar with the union’s view of the deliberations said there had been no in-depth discussions on the issue between DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA, and Goodell.
“De hasn’t really spoken to Roger about it in detail,” that person said. “I think it’s up for discussion. I don’t think it’s anywhere near concrete.”
The union declined to comment through a spokesman.
Regardless, the NFL’s ambitious plan of dominating the sports calendar, and thereby abolishing the idea of an offseason in the cultural sense, took another step Tuesday. This will, of course, reignite talk of an 18-game regular season and changes to the NFL’s preseason structure.
“They’re trying to maximize the earning power for the teams and owners, and they’ve already done that,” Slavin said. “I guess July will be the only month with no football.”
At least until training camps open.
Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.