SBJ/Sept. 2-8, 2013/Opinion

What I’ll be watching as the NFL kicks off

It’s an interesting time for the NFL, with many trends and business-specific stories to watch that could affect future decisions by the league. Here are a number that I’ll be closely monitoring as well as my conversation with an NFL owner who looks back at what he learned during his first year of ownership, in his own words.

> COME TOGETHER: Player health and safety remains the most important story, and it will continue to be a common thread through the season. I’ll also be watching the live game experience, enhancements, fan reaction to both of those, and overall attendance. If you want to see just how focused the league is on getting people to games and touting the euphoric, communal stadium experience, look no further than one of the league’s latest ads from Grey, N.Y., that is a direct shoutout to fans to get off the couch. In one version of its “Back to Football” campaign, dramatic scenes of fans and families watching the live game are accompanied by the voice-over of actor Forest Whitaker, who states, “Together, we make hearts pound. Together, we make hope eternal. Together, we make time stand still. But you have to be there … to be there. Together, we make football.” It’s an overt call that staying at home shouldn’t be an option. I’ll continue to watch what the league explores in terms of improving the experience, as its fan experience club working group is filled with smart, progressive minds charged with studying one of the league’s most important initiatives.

> IN-STADIUM ENHANCEMENTS: Very little is known about teams’ plans, process and end result for showing exclusive highlights and footage in-stadium. Much was made of the league saying it would require teams to install cameras in home locker rooms this season, with teams having the option to use the video in the stadium during halftime and other breaks in play. I’ll be watching to see how concerted an effort this is, what content is shown when and how often, and which teams are most aggressive. I’ll go back to NFL Executive Vice President Eric Grubman continually stressing at our World Congress of Sports that fans can’t be disappointed. “If connectivity is important to that fan, we better provide it,” he said. “If the RedZone and what’s happening with a rival team is important to that fan, it better be on [the video board]. ... We have to do that.”

In addition, I’ll continue to look for anecdotal evidence on improved connectivity in venues, especially at ones with recent upgrades, including Ford Field, CenturyLink Field, AT&T Stadium and MetLife Stadium.

> CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’: Keep an eye out for any movement on the league’s building issues in the nation’s most populous state. Traction, and especially news, around the Los Angeles market has publicly slowed since Tim Leiweke left AEG. The Raiders are entering the final year on their most recent lease at Oakland with little beyond a feasibility study for a new stadium in hand. And, in case you missed it, SI.com’s Jim Trotter had an excellent piece recently on how the Chargers’ pursuit of a new stadium is at a standstill while the city government is in chaos and leadership is lacking. This comes while The New York Times recently had a glowing piece on California Gov. Jerry Brown and how he had returned the state to some form of financial stability. So could there be deals made? These are important markets and projects to the future of the league. It also proves again how impressive Jed York and company’s achievement for the state’s first new football stadium in four decades, the 49ers’ new $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, was. Yes, it was with a massive private commitment of $850 million, but they have backed it up through strong sales.

> TV TIME: I learned long ago how futile it is to try to predict ratings. But a few things I’ll look for. Outside of the NFL Network, all the league’s TV partners last year saw a slight drop in viewership. I anticipate that some will rebound. An easy prediction is this: The NFL will have TV’s biggest audiences. Once again, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” will be the highest-rated TV series this fall. It has a few odd games that may not draw in September — 49ers-Seahawks; Bears-Steelers; Patriots-Falcons; Texans-49ers — but the rest of the season is very strong. And once again, ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” will be cable’s most watched series. Fox should see strong numbers thanks to a schedule that has the NFC East play the NFC North. Fox also has 10 Dallas Cowboys games (it had eight last year), and it is well-positioned. CBS has some strong national games, but I’m not sure how deep its AFC schedule is.

As an aside, look for MLB to benefit from the NFL’s schedule. Fox has two strong lead-ins into Sunday night playoff games. In Week 6, Fox will have a Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady matchup to lead into Game 2 of the ALCS. And it will have an RGIII vs. Peyton Manning game leading into Game 4 of the World Series. MLB could hardly ask for stronger lead-ins to its marquee programming.

> WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT?: The two NFL jobs I get asked about the most: Who will be tabbed as CEO of the Dolphins? Will the Raiders bring in someone to run the business side? Tough jobs, with big personalities at the top. But both also have great potential, with major projects on the boards and fan bases that care deeply. In Miami, owner Stephen Ross seems to be looking for a sharp business manager who can not only handle the external issues like pending stadium issues and community relations, but also focus on declining ticket sales and sponsorships and eroding brand perception. I’m hearing that Ross, Dolphins Vice Chairman Matt Higgins, and Turnkey Search have conducted a broad search, speaking with more than 50 candidates from the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Could be a decision soon. On the Raiders front, I have no idea what team owner Mark Davis will do, and no one I talk to seems to have a sense of whether he’ll bring in someone to lead the business side now that Amy Trask is gone.

> SPEAKING OF TRASK: One of the TV personalities I’m most interested in watching is Trask, as the former Raiders CEO joins CBS Sports Network’s early Sunday morning pregame show. I’ll be looking to see what kind of business-side perspective she can provide. Granted, these issues don’t come up often, but she could offer valuable perspective about the pressures of blackouts and ticket sales, marketing and messaging, challenges of playing in an outdated stadium and ways to improve the game-day experience. I’m not sure the majority of NFL fans care about these subjects in their pregame shows, but readers of this magazine would. There aren’t many pure-play business-side talking heads, so let’s see what she delivers.

> QUICK HITS: I am getting the sense because of the concerted push by some owners — the Glazers, Stan Kroenke, Shad Khan (see related story) and Robert Kraft, among others — that the league is starting to be a bit more serious about its international strategy, obviously with a clear focus on London. My sense is with two games this year, three likely in the future, an early Sunday morning “Breakfast With The NFL In London” live TV window in the future, league officials are beginning to see real revenue from the NFL International Series, and frankly, like most businesses, revenue is what it boils down to. . … Continue to watch preparations around Super Bowl XLVIII. From the league’s Broadway Boulevard, to corporate hospitality, organization and transportation, to working with two states and trying to stand out amid the hub of New York City, this will be a historic event. … I’ll continue to monitor the issues surrounding Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Vikings owners, the Wilfs. In Minnesota, the promise and excitment of a long-planned new stadium will likely be mired in negativity based on the ruling against the Wilfs in a New Jersey court. Needless to say, the league must avoid another issue of ownership ethics. … We’ve been keeping our eyes on the new security checks and bag policy and its effect on fans. All one had to do was see up to 45-minute waits to enter last week’s U.S. Open to further crystalize how the Boston Marathon tragedy has changed sports. Keep an eye on this, especially during the first few weeks as fans are not up to speed, as the bag policy affects the first fan touch point at games, and this could impede all the work teams have done to improve and quicken the entrance access.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.


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