SBD/September 9, 2010/NFL Season Preview

Former Team Execs Brandt, Imbriano Discuss Issues Facing The NFL

Imbriano Says Game Experience Is A Priority

The Saints and Vikings take the field tonight in New Orleans to kick off the '10 NFL season, a year cluttered with more off-field storylines than any other in recent memory. To give readers a unique perspective on the state of the NFL, Assistant Managing Editor Brian Helfrich caught up with two former team execs, Andrew Brandt and Lou Imbriano. Brandt spent nine seasons in the Packers' front office and now serves as President for National Football Post, writing and reporting on the business of football. Likewise, Imbriano spent several years with the Kraft Sports Group, including nine as CMO of the Patriots and Gillette Stadium, before leaving the organization to become President & CEO of TrinityOne Worldwide. The following is part one of a two-part roundtable discussion. The second part, focusing on the NFL's labor issues, will appear tomorrow in THE DAILY.

Q: A USA Today cover story earlier this month addressed one of the NFL’s most pressing problems: fans choosing to stay home. How big of an issue has this become for the league?

Imbriano: Driving fans to stadiums is ultra-important, because when it comes to live sports, owners sell tickets and that’s how they generate revenue. They sell merchandise, they sell concessions, and all that is really important. So making the game entertaining, and making sure that fans have a great experience, should be a priority. I don’t believe there’s a major issue to it other than the economy, which is hurting every entertainment property. If you have to choose between feeding your family and heating your house, and going to a football game, that’s going to be an easy decision. You can get information real time, so there’s no real need to go to the game, especially if your pocketbook is being tapped into.

Brandt: It’s a good thing that the NFL, which may be the most popular sports brand in the country, certainly is not taking its popularity for granted. So many sports are struggling at the gate and struggling to win out over some of the entertainment options people have. Some people think the NFL doesn’t have to worry about that. Of course they do. And they’re taking steps to make sure that’s never a problem. As Lou said, the NFL is trying to make it fan-friendly and family-friendly, interesting beyond even what happens on the field. Everything that goes into the planning is to make sure that it’s an entertainment event. It is in some ways easier to get to the top than it is to stay there.

Imbriano: Andrew hit on a great point. Most sporting events happen multiple times a week; baseball is basically every day. The thing that the NFL has going for it that separates it from the rest of the pack is that it’s once a week. Your team plays once a week, and it really has become more of an event than a game. That’s why teams like the Patriots build other entertainment opportunities, to become a destination beyond just the football game itself.

Q: Without touching on labor quite yet, what is the biggest issue facing Roger Goodell right now?

Brandt: Labor is the most important. But beyond that, and it’s kind of related, you want to continue to believe that in this economic downturn, you can overcome any issues in sponsorship sales, suite sales, declining appetite for public financing of stadiums. There’s nothing that’s recession-proof, including the NFL. It’s continuing to work hard to make sure that the product is never complacent. As much as we all think that football rules the world, there are millions of people who don’t share that assessment. The other thing is the ancillary aspects of labor: player safety, player conduct, etc. All of this swirls into the subject of the moral integrity of the sport. That’s something Commissioner Goodell has been very cognizant of and continues to be.

Imbriano: Roger should be concerned with the philosophical approach of the NFL and how it looks at things. There’re so many aspects of the game that are changing, and so many aspects of society that have changed. He and the minds around him have to start thinking differently. They have to start changing how they operate, and stop looking at it as, “We’ve always done it this way, so this is the right thing to do.” They really have to begin exploring other methods, other options, other ways to address all aspects of the business. With player safety, and how the players handle themselves, NFL officials have to change the way they’re thinking. Sponsorship is another thing; they have to think of sponsorships differently. Sponsorship is not a transactional aspect of the business, and they can’t just be slapping big brands on signs and logos on parts of buildings and uniforms. They have to think about how they’re going to help their partners do business. Being the almighty NFL isn’t good enough anymore.

Q: Does any one franchise stick out for its outreach to fans and making sure the product is still of the utmost importance to consumers?

Brandt: I can only speak from experience with nine years with the Packers, where the fans are the owners. I think reaching out was extremely important, treating decision-making in terms of what is best for the shareholders. As Lou mentioned with Patriot Place, so much of the experience at Lambeau is Lambeau. Obviously the game and the team are important, but so much of the tradition around the stadium appeals to fans. There’s a whole culture with the Green Bay Packer Nation that goes way beyond the eight games played at Lambeau Field. I think that’s important -- it’s certainly not unique to Green Bay -- but having a 30-year waiting list for tickets in the smallest market in professional sports is really something.

Imbriano: Unless you know the day-to-day inner-working of a team, it’s really hard to pinpoint who’s really going to the extreme to make sure they’re doing right by the fans. What I will say is that I believe most teams, even though they want to be great fan-friendly and customer-service entities, sometimes are fooling themselves. Wanting to be that and actually obtaining it takes staffing, hard work, a plan and execution. Part of the problem is that a lot of NFL owners do not want to hire the number of people necessary to make sure that vision comes to life. Here’s where I have to give great credit to the Krafts --and again I know first-hand because I was there. Our staff was larger than any NFL staff at that time, and in order to provide great customer service, you have to hire bodies. Having winning be your marketing plan, and winning be your customer-service plan, is the wrong way to go.

Q: On the flip side, what organization needs to hit the refresh button on how it operates?

Imbriano: I’ll take a stab at this first because I don’t mind pissing people off. There’s three classifications of owners: 1) those who came into the league in the early days and spent little-to-no money to acquire the team; 2) the group of folks that came in a bit later, like the Krafts and Jerry Jones, who are not necessarily billionaires at the time, but bought the franchise and ran it as a business; and 3) the new group coming in, who are billionaires already and just want to own a team. What I notice to be the case is the group of owners like the Raiders and Bengals, folks who’ve had their teams for a long time, they’re less concerned with generating revenue because it’s not as important to them. Because of that, they have smaller staffs and they’re not focused. Cincinnati, there’s a place that makes me nuts, because they’re the first folks jumping up and down about sharing in revenues and they still haven’t gone out to name their stadium. Anybody who hasn’t tried to name their stadium, why would the league allow them to share in revenue from other teams who named their stadiums?

Brandt: I’ll echo some of that, not necessarily calling out names, but you don’t need me or Lou to call out names. You need team owners calling out other team owners. Beyond the labor situation, owners vs. owners is a big issue. There’s a feeling among high-revenue owners, who are not necessarily high-profit owners, that they are contributing more to the overall benefit of the league financially than teams that sit back and collect their 1/32nd check and don’t do things like seek out naming rights. Having sat in a lot of NFL meetings, you see the banter back-and-forth between the teams that do and the team’s that don’t.

Q: Keeping in mind some of these troubled franchises, do you think we’re going to see an NFL team in L.A. before the end of this decade?

Brandt: I started going to NFL meetings in 1999 and I was hearing a lot about it then. It’s hard to say that it’s a reality. Having said that, of course it’s a possibility. You’re always going to think of teams that are looking at other cities that get stadiums through public financing. When you think about Minnesota or San Diego, situations that haven’t had the public financing, and think about where they’ll go if they leave, L.A. always is a natural option.

Imbriano: I agree. This is not an NFL issue; this is an L.A. issue. The leaders in L.A. have to get off their asses and make something happen. I would imagine the politics of where/when/how/who are so intertwined in this aspect that it’s not happening. But L.A. is the No. 2 market in the country. Why wouldn’t you want one or two teams in L.A. if you’re the NFL, because TV is a huge revenue generator.

Please see tomorrow's issue of THE DAILY for Part Two of the roundtable discussion.

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