Imagining Football in a Non-NFL World
One question I get asked once in a while as a football writer — especially by friends who don’t really follow or enjoy football — is whether I think there will still be a sport for me to cover in 20 or 30 years. This is my seventh season writing about football for a living, so I can’t say whether people were asking about the issue in the ’80s or ’90s, but I had never heard anybody even consider the possibility of a football-less future until the league’s problem with concussions became a mainstream story several years ago. It had been a few months since somebody asked me about it, but over the past two weeks, it has come up on multiple occasions.
The first half of my stock answer has always been to say that I think there will be professional football in the future. There’s little reason to believe people will stop being interested in football altogether. For all the rightful indignation about the concussion problem heading into 2013, television ratings were mostly up last season. I know plenty of people who were disgusted by the news from the past two weeks and said they weren’t going to watch football in the weeks to come, and ratings did drop on CBS and Fox this Sunday, as compared with the Week 2 ratings of a year ago — but the Sunday Night Football rating was up slightly from last year’s Week 2 game.
While football might undergo the same subtle erosion of popularity seen by baseball and transition away from being regarded as the country’s most popular sport, it would be virtually unprecedented for a sport as big as football to lose all its notability and fall into irrelevant obscurity.1
The second part of my stock answer seems more relevant than ever. There’s probably going to be professional football in 30 years. I just don’t know if that product will be presented to you by the National Football League.
Where Did the NFL Go?
There is precedent for a league eating itself alive and reenvisioning itself, just not in America. In 1992, the 22 teams in the first division of the English Football League left to create a new competition, primarily to take larger chunks of a more lucrative television deal. Within years, the new organization they formed — the Premier League — became the most prominent domestic sporting competition in the world.
Like the Premier League, the NFL derives a massive portion of its annual revenue from television companies (including ESPN, which owns this website and employs me). The league generates $7 billion in media rights fees each year, which forms the vast majority of its $9 billion to $10 billion of annual revenue. If you were looking for a reason why the NFL might not be here in 30 years, you would start there. Any drop in that revenue stream would seriously affect team profitability and render the league’s current financial structure untenable.
It’s hard to imagine there won’t be a television network interested in airing NFL games, given how consistently high those games’ ratings tend to be, but we’re already in a sports television rights bubble that is the result of several factors specific to the television landscape of 2014. That includes sports’ status as one of the few DVR-proof pieces of television programming, the unavailability of à la carte cable options, and the slow shift from watching things provided by a broadcast or cable network on a television to watching content available through a streaming service on your phone or computer. Andy Greenwald often notes in his pieces how the television landscape of today is different from that of the past; indeed, the highest-rated sitcom on television, The Big Bang Theory, had its ratings fall between a 9.3 and an 11.8 last year. The highest-rated sitcom 20 years ago, Seinfeld, posted a slightly higher average rating: 20.4. The world has changed.
The likely changes in the television landscape mean the NFL might be presented and distributed in very different ways in 2024 or 2034, which may make the product less profitable and contribute to dramatic changes in the league’s structure or style. I don’t think sponsors would suddenly abandon the NFL en masse without being replaced — only one relatively modest sponsor (Radisson) of one team pulled out as a result of the Adrian Peterson crisis, while major league sponsor Anheuser-Busch just delivered a public warning — but if the advertiser-driven model of delivering television collapsed, it could put the league on a dangerous path. A shifting playing field might also make it easier for a lean challenger to rise and take on the NFL, if it could do a better job of anticipating and exploiting that changing curve.
Another logical path would see the league sued into oblivion by its ex-players. The NFL’s landmark concussion settlement from August of last year has already been renegotiated, with the cap on overall damage claims eliminated for fears that the league wouldn’t be able to pay all claims. That class-action lawsuit includes only a small subset of the players who might have suffered traumatic and/or permanent injuries during their time in the NFL. There will surely be more lawsuits in the years to come.
Perhaps more plausibly, the NFL could be affected by some sort of “black swan” event that would be impossible to anticipate and yet incredibly impactful. Take Roger Goodell’s status as commissioner as an example. It wasn’t all that long ago that Goodell was viewed favorably as a swift-acting disciplinarian; he was on the cover of Time as recently as December 2012 as a man trying to save football, as opposed to part of the culture destroying it. The concussion concerns led to calls for the NFL to change, not cries for Goodell’s head. One year ago, the idea that Ray Rice (and Peterson) would be directly responsible for the downfall of Goodell would have been ludicrous, and yet, that is basically what has happened.
One thing that probably won’t impact the NFL in the long term: the recent announcement by Washington senator Maria Cantwell that she will introduce legislation to strip the league of its tax-exempt status. The NFL and NHL combined would generate only $109 million in taxes over the next 10 years, per analysis of a similar bill introduced by Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn in 2013 before it died on the vine with little support.
Removing the league’s tax-exempt status would also push the NFL to pursue different tax structures and recodify the way it distributes money to remove tax liabilities, which could eliminate a good chunk of the revenue the NFL might otherwise send to the federal government. Indeed, Major League Baseball has already given up its tax-exempt status because it didn’t save much money and the league can now conceal valuable financial information. Without the NFL’s tax-exempt status and IRS filing rules for nonprofits, as the Washington Post notes, we wouldn’t know that Goodell made $44 million last year. Changes to the league’s antitrust status would be more meaningful, but those are also unlikely to occur.
What Would Pro Football Look Like Without the NFL?
The Franchises: It’s possible2 that the franchises of the NFL could leave the entity and form a new league. People root for teams and players, not leagues, and so I think the vast majority of Green Bay fans would have no qualms about rooting for the Packers if they were playing top-flight football against the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions in, say, the North American Football League.
Suppose for a moment the NFL collapsed as part of a lockout when the vast majority of its players agreed to go play in a newly formed league with new franchises,3 all of which are suspiciously similar to NFL franchises that would then be left without players. NFL fans have failed to support secondary leagues like the XFL and UFL in the past 15 years because the quality of play was inferior and the leagues lacked star-caliber talent, but what if that weren’t the case? To use modern-day players as an example, would fans in Wisconsin support the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, or would they root for Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and Clay Matthews suiting up in green-and-yellow jerseys for the Green Bay Football Club at Camp Randall Stadium on Sundays?4 Perhaps more important, which team would they want to watch in the comfort of their homes? My suspicion is that the stars would win out over the laundry in most cases.
The Ownership Structure: If a post-NFL league were formed by the NFL’s current franchises (and whatever franchises it adds in the future), there likely wouldn’t be a significant change between the current financial structures of the NFL and the scope of this new league. The new league would likely then negotiate with whatever union represented the players of the NFL as part of a new agreement.
A new league with new teams wouldn’t look or act the same way. Take the lockout example above, where the players abandon the league to start a new entity. Such a deal would inevitably assign some share of league ownership and revenue to the players on a permanent, nonnegotiable basis. With that in mind, it’s a lock that such a league would give NFL players the fully guaranteed contracts they’ve lacked for years. It’s astounding and closer to depressing that NFL players don’t currently possess guaranteed contracts, given that every other major sporting league I can think of has guaranteed deals for their players. With profitable leagues routinely exacting concessions from players during lockouts over the past 15 years and uninformed fans immediately decrying players looking for larger chunks of league revenue as greedy and selfish, it may take a new league to get NFL players fully guaranteed deals.
A new league would likely be partly owned by one or more television networks or media content providers, especially if it were formed by a breakaway group of players or teams. It makes too much sense for all parties involved. Players would get the security of a steady deal, and the media entity would be able to build and develop a product without having to worry about being massively outbid for rights fees. (The liaison between those two groups, naturally, would be player agents, who would stand to profit heavily from such a move.) Such a league would likely adopt something similar to the single-entity system of Major League Soccer, where teams are owned by the league and operated by a shareholder.
So, who would that media partner look like? CBS? Fox? ESPN? Not necessarily. In 10 years, those networks might not look anything like they do right now, and they may lack the financial clout or infrastructure to make the best bid for the rights to air football. Indeed, the best option may be dismissed offhand until it proves to be the best possible one. The Premier League came into existence in 1992 in part because of a dramatic advancem in media technology. Satellite television was a still-nascent medium when the Premier League sold its television rights to satellite broadcaster BSkyB for the then-exorbitant sum of £304 million over five years, but it ended up drastically transforming both parties. The league quickly realized the power of satellite television and became the most-watched league in the world, while Sky gave holdout consumers a very important reason to join their pay-television service.
This one probably won’t even take a new league. The NFL’s current television contracts run out in 2021 (ESPN) and 2022 (CBS, NBC, Fox, and likely DirecTV5 once that contract extension is confirmed). There will be media organizations bidding for those rights in 2022 that don’t represent the traditional model of a television network.6 What if YouTube successfully wins the rights to CBS’s share of the NFL package in 2022? What if Amazon or Netflix or Facebook or some other tech company that comes into the public sphere between now and then decides it wants to build its paid content network around the most popular event on American television? Wouldn’t that make you give YouTube $50 a month quicker than anything else would?
It’s close to impossible to get a good idea of what player health will look like 20 years from now. We have no idea what sort of advances will come in terms of safety technology or what sort of events will shape the league’s policies and attitudes toward health. Our attitudes about what’s acceptable and unacceptable also change faster than it might seem. It was only 14 years ago that Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke famously castigated and isolated star center Eric Lindros for failing to play through concussions, stripping him of the captaincy while fighting a virulent public relations war against the Lindros family. Some disapproved at the time and thought Clarke’s actions were backward, but I don’t recall those people being the majority. Now, of course, it would be unconscionable for any general manager to act that way toward a concussed player without being fired.
In any case, a new league would almost surely have to offer a more comprehensive health care plan for retired players and their post-career quality of life than the current NFL. The new entity wouldn’t be subject to insurance claims and lawsuits from the old league, so it would likely seek some assurances that it wouldn’t be sued by players for injuries they suffered while playing in the NFL.
The new league also wouldn’t be beholden to the season structure of the old NFL, which would allow it to easily implement changes for the better. The preseason would be shorter. A player-led league would probably opt to keep the schedule at 16 games if it hadn’t already been moved to an 18-game campaign by then. Cutting the preseason down to two games would leave the new entity with 19 weeks to complete 16 games, which would mean three bye weeks.
Instead of teams playing four preseason games in a row and having a lone bye week, they would start the regular season after just two preseason games. Teams would play eight games in nine weeks, with one week assigned as a first-half bye, which would be somewhere between Week 4 and Week 6. Week 10 would be a practice-free bye for every team, at which point all the teams would play eight more games in nine weeks, with all of them taking their third bye between Week 14 and Week 16. Once the regular season began, no team would play more than five games in a row, which would give players more time to heal and rest in midseason while providing a higher quality of play from fresher talent.
It’s difficult to predict what the climate for sports betting will look like in 20 years, but it certainly seems like it will head toward more states legalizing gambling. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said two weeks ago it was “inevitable” that cash-strapped states would turn to sports betting for much-needed revenue, and that the NBA would be a likely participant. The NFL has its own bizarre history of dealing with gambling, but a new league doesn’t need to take that path, especially if sports betting is legalized in most American states by 2034.
The Premier League has an inextricable relationship with betting. Teams have their jerseys sponsored by online betting companies, which advertise their live odds for the ongoing match on the digital advertising boards surrounding the pitch. Most stadiums have kiosks and concessions stands where you can fill out a small form and place a bet on the match you’re about to watch.7 That’s impossible to imagine at an NFL stadium in 2014, and yet, I feel very confident that a new league would embrace that side of the sports industry 20 years from now. That betting would likely see the profits split between local municipalities and the league itself.
The one place I don’t think you would see changes might be the most important one for most fans: on the field. A league part-owned by a media company would probably have a few more cameras and microphones than the NFL we see today,8 but otherwise, it would still be the same football. Football can get better, and a new league would be able to get past a lot of traditionalist junk to deliver a safer, more exciting product. Materially changing the game of football will likely turn a lot of people off. Changing the initials of the corporate entity that presents it? After one of the worst weeks in the league’s history, it’s easier to imagine than ever before.