The NFL has seen immense financial growth over the last few years, raking in $14 billion in 2016, a strong increase from $8.7 in 2010. Comparatively, the NHL and MLB’s COMBINED revenue that same year didn’t reach $14 billion. We are clearly living in the NFL’s world.
Despite this, questions about the NFL’s inherent violence, inconsistent suspension practices, drug policy (smoking weed is double the suspension than domestic abuse) and long-term brain trauma (and the subsequent league denial) are everywhere.
The last issue has become so popular, even outside of the sports industry, that it spawned a movie with an “A” list actor, and a best-selling book.
All this ? combined with a few PR disasters, players not trusting the league or its owners, Pro Bowl players retiring in their prime, an ill-timed political movement, an overblown TV ratings decline ? have contributed to the theory of the NFL’s supposed fall from grace.
We won’t discredit these facts, downplay the importance of legitimate health issues or chastise players who chose to hang ’em up early.
We will prove that despite those valid arguments, the NFL’s strong infrastructure, business foundation and very loyal fan base will make sure it won’t skip a beat. It won’t happen without some rule changes.
Fortunately, the NFL tinkers with their rules every year in response to player trends, technological advances and fan experience. We’ll propose a few that curb violence WHILE adding entertainment value for fans.
But first, the signs that everything is going to be all right.
Soaring Franchise Values and TV Rights
NFL Franchise values are the richest in North American sports, and make up 27 of the 50 top Sports Valuations in the World. The average franchise valuation is worth more than all but a few MLB teams, and has seen a staggering growth in franchise valuation, up 64% since 2014. In fact, its lowest valued team, the Buffalo Bills, is worth $300 million (or 20%) more than the average MLB team.
- Dallas Cowboys: $4 billion
- New England Patriots: $3.2 billion
- Washington Redskins: $2.85 billion
- New York Giants: $2.8 billion
- San Francisco 49ers: $2.7 billion
This is mostly the result of a massive national TV rights deal with four of the largest TV networks in the US (CBS, NBC, FOX, ESPN) that yields each team $200 million per year. That sum represents an almost 60% increase per team from the previous deal.
Having these partners doesn’t just help the NFL amplify and distribute its content to the core 18–48 male market and beyond. The unwritten rule is that their “buying power” helps control the news cycle by minimizing controversial material related to the NFL.
The NFL Network
The NFL Network, seen in over 75 million homes across the US, just started broadcasting live games a few years ago. On top of the carrier fees and ad revenue it brings in, the vast viewership coverage is vital in negotiating with TV partners, because the latter knows the NFL could simply show the games on its own network.
This yields the NFL top dollar for its broadcasting rights and doesn’t even include streaming rights; Verizon is paying the NFL $21 million to broadcast ONE game live from England, in the third week of the season, between two of the smallest markets in the NFL!
For context, $21 million is three times the amount each NHL team receives PER SEASON from their NBC Rights.
Think about that difference. That Verizon fee represents a 40% increase from the previous streaming fee Twitter paid in 2015. It was also signed in May 2017, at the height of the supposed decline of TV ratings.
The city of Las Vegas just spent close to $1 billion for the Raiders, and the non-football fans of the city should be angry. Las Vegas is allocating scarce and valuable funds away from its people and pressing needs so it can pay for an NFL stadium.
A city would not do that without wanting to be part of something special, or knowing it is going to be a worthwhile investment.
One of the key drivers of those high franchise values and rights fees stem from unwavering fan support.
The league has experienced increases in TV ratings almost every year since the 90s. The damaging PR disasters that have spawned whispers of league boycotting that will lead to the downfall of the NFL have not materialized.
Ray Rice: Ratings increased at a historic rate. This includes the demographics that you would think would care.
Deflategate: The sport’s greatest dynasty was caught cheating for a second time, sullying their legacies and championships, and fans didn’t flinch. In fact, they set a US TV viewership record.
Bountygate: Saints games were the 9th, 11th and 24th most watched games the following season. Coordinator Gregg Williams has been employed by three teams since his suspension, proving that even teams don’t have supposed morals. Essentially, if those issues didn’t curtail the league, it is difficult to see TV ratings dip, especially as revenue for tickets and suites are increasing as well.
While the media was quick to proclaim this the beginning of the end of the NFL, it didn’t even lead to continued poor ratings that same season!
Yes, technically, 2016 TV ratings decreased by a total of 8%, but that was only in the first nine weeks of the season, before rebounding by 6%. This initial decrease was mostly due to the US election, and perhaps a slight schedule saturation.
In Canada, it was business as usual as TV ratings increased, yet again. And the 2017 NFL draft in Philadelphia had 250,000 fans outside the stage and drew record TV ratings. Again. The data shows that despite the small blip in the ratings, there’s no reason to believe that domestic violence or cheap hits will affect ratings or popularity.
What is undeniable, however, is how the NFL has made itself a gambling phenomenon, inextricably tied to the league, despite the NFL denying their partnership, including its “relationship” with the daily fantasy sites.
Since 2009, the legal amount wagered on just the Super Bowl has gone up by $39 million. An estimated 200 million people bet on the Super Bowl each year. In one year alone, 41% of the $3.2 billion legally wagered on sports in the state of Nevada was on football. That includes gambling staples like March Madness, Horse Racing and Boxing.
In Canada, it’s much of the same: 30% of all legal gambling revenue stems from the NFL, with an estimated $150 million booked illegally on the Super Bowl, vs. $3 million legally. So even if fans turn away from the NFL (and there’s no indication they will), gamblers certainly will not.
Clearly, the NFL is thriving in multiple important facets. Not many leagues hit on all cylinders at the same time, so it’s impressive to see live in front of our eyes. That said, the league is always looking for improvements on and off the field that will lead to gains in the pocket books.
We have three proposed rule changes that would make the game safer, more enjoyable for fans and, therefore, more desirable for advertisers.
- Runner Down by Contact
Currently, in the NFL, an opposing player needs to touch the ball carrier once his knee is down for the play to be over. NCAA deems the play over once a player is down, even if untouched.
The spirit of camaraderie says players wouldn’t take liberties on defenceless players, but in the heat of battle, not wanting to be on SportsCentre or receiving the wrath of their coaches, defensive players finish the play strong.
This rule change would lead to less tackling and contact, and a few less reviewed plays, as coaches wouldn’t be able to challenge if a player was done by contact. This would also speed up the flow of the game, something the NFL has looked into already.
Less contact and quicker games? Seems like a win-win.
- One-Foot Catches
Currently, the NFL’s catch rule is that two feet need to be inbounds with possession of the ball. NCAA needs only one foot, and implementing this rule would speed up the game by not having the same amount of challenges.
This would aid player safety because receivers wouldn't be so defenceless when they fall out of bounds trying to get both feet in. Their bodies would be braced and able to break their fall, with little to no contact to the head.
It would also make the field a bit bigger, as the receiver would be able to use more of the field knowing he only has to get one foot in bounds.
And from a fan standpoint, it would make the game more exciting and boost fantasy numbers.
- After a Successful Field Goal, Receiving Team Gets The Ball At Their Own 35
With the exception of an attempt late in the game, field goals are boring and cause additional stoppages in play, which the NFL has wanted to fix. This rule change would encourage teams to go for touchdowns, be more creative and aggressive, and eliminate another kickoff opportunity.
This is consistent with the league moving up the line of scrimmage on a touchback to the 25 to subtly dissuade teams from a return. That play has been described “as a car wreck.
The second rule it aligns with is the XP line of scrimmage being moved to the 18-yard line. It got rid of a boring play AND injected excitement by making that play more difficult, which encouraged 2-point conversions.
This new rule would penalize teams for being conservative by settling for a Field Goal when they are in range.
Knowing they would be giving up field position, especially in a close game with poor weather conditions late in the season, teams would be more aggressive to get a first down.
The NFL is Here to Stay
Like most businesses, the NFL is not perfect, and absolutely has some issues to fix. While people “say” they care about the NFL’s conduct policy and all the other controversies, data shows that this in fact not true, as their love and dedication steadily increase.
Until fans do show these issues tangibly affect them, the NFL will continue to grow where it counts the most: fans’ time and money, and franchise values and TV rights.