SBJ/Sept. 1-7, 2014/Opinion

From ratings to Redskins: What to watch in the NFL

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There were more than 1,500 stories related to the NFL in SportsBusiness Daily from the day after Super Bowl XLVIII to last Wednesday. It indicates an eventful offseason for the league with a wide range of headlines: some controversial (high-profile arrests of Jim Irsay and Ray Rice); some polarizing (the debate over the name Redskins) and some sad (the health battles of Pat Bowlen and Jim Kelly). As the league kicks off Thursday night, here are the stories I’ll be keeping an eye on.

> IS THURSDAY NIGHT MUST-SEE TV?: This has been a top story since the NFL floated out the eight-game package to bid last year, and now we get to see just how the marketplace responds. CBS’s schedule is pretty strong: Steelers-Ravens, Giants-Redskins, Vikings-Packers and Jets-Patriots to name a few. The network is guaranteeing a 12.0 rating, which seems doable with the NFL Network simulcast, but it’s also facing stout prime-time competition with the likes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” on ABC. It will still rate strongly, and I believe more people will tune in to CBS’s seven Thursday night games, on average, than the first seven weeks of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” 

There are a lot of elements to consider here: Could this slowly change the weekly viewing habits of U.S. sports fans in terms of Thursday night? … It’s a significant test of strength for the league on a new outlet on a still nontraditional night for NFL football. … It’s a big bet by CBS’s Les Moonves and Sean McManus, who don’t want to build up the franchise only to lose it to another network after one year. … If it’s deemed successful, what can the NFL get for a rights fee when it either decides to stay with CBS or takes the package back to the open market? 

Additional impact: The NFL insists that it is as committed as it’s ever been in NFL Network, even with CBS getting part of the Thursday package. I will be looking to see how the new package affects not only NFL Network, but also ESPN, which has had a successful two-decade run with Thursday night college football.

> WHAT ELSE I’LL BE WATCHING: I signed up for NFL Now when it launched — just the basic plan, not the premium service. As a Patriots fan, I wondered how it would differ from Patriots.com, which I find to be a very valuable news source: good writers, great videos and behind-the-scenes content. Early on, I’m testing NFL Now mostly through my iPhone, where it’s less “clunky” than my PC experience. I’m seeing similar Pats-based content across both sites. NFL Now obviously has more surrounding NFL video, so I’ll watch to see how NFL Now develops over the season to curate and give me Patriots-based video from sources that I may have missed. … Keep an ear open to references to Microsoft tablets on the NFL’s sidelines. Microsoft pays the league more than $80 million annually and for the first time this year, it has its tablets on the sidelines. Early on, I’ve caught a few media mentions of “the iPads now being used on the sidelines.” Microsoft needs to leverage its brand equity out of this enhancement, but that will be diminished significantly if media mentions fail to accurately refer to the product and instead tout a competitor. Don’t think the NFL isn’t reminding its broadcast partners and other media of that.

> BEYOND THE MEDIA MUSING: I’ll also pay attention to story lines on the health and safety of players. Wes Welker’s third concussion in 10 months reinforces that continuing narrative. … With the NFL’s keen focus on London, I’ll specifically be watching the Oct. 26 game, when the Falcons and Lions kick off at the early time of 9:30 a.m. ET/1:30 p.m. local at Wembley Stadium. This is a first and will make that International Series game stand out because it will allow the NFL to have games all day Sunday, from 9 a.m. until midnight, putting this one at a more desirable local London time and perhaps hinting at the window for future games. … Last year’s much publicized efforts to enhance in-stadium video with behind-the-scenes footage and RedZone got off the ground only marginally. Will this year offer more? … On the team side, who emerges to land the Bills? Most of the fans I speak to from the Buffalo market are bullish about the potential of Terry Pegula owning the team. They point to his deep investment in the market, his vast net worth and his learnings from owning the Sabres. Final price tag and any new owner’s interest in reducing profit margins in exchange of possible new stadium debt also is worth watching. … The future of the Raiders and the team’s ownership under Mark Davis is a story line to follow. … Last week, Sean Gilbert outlined an aggressive agenda in running against NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith, who is up for re-election in March.  Gilbert certainly didn’t play to the middle in calling for an 18-game season and a termination to the current CBA. Keep an eye on what player and agent factions emerge as he challenges Smith and how the  campaign possibly affects the relationship between the NFL and union.

> WHAT WILL DANIEL SNYDER DO? The NFL story that crosses over to the mainstream is how long Redskins owner Daniel Snyder will insist on keeping the team’s name. He’s dismissed all the public relations hits from media columnists and even national politicos calling for a change. Those don’t affect the organization’s bottom line. But this story shows no sign of going away any time soon.

I used to think that the only thing that would make Snyder re-evaluate his decision is if some serious financial consequences came into play. If FedEx, which pays an estimated $7.59 million a year for naming rights to the team’s Landover, Md., stadium and has a deal through 2025, said it were opting out unless there were a name change, or if a large number of the team’s roughly 40 local sponsors, or even if some of the NFL’s three dozen national sponsors, began to seriously lobby for a change, perhaps then we would see a move. But we have seen nothing that indicates that type of push is happening.  

If the organization is prevented from using its intellectual property in merchandise, that could also greatly affect the bottom line and force a decision. The decision by TV broadcasters and talent to refrain from using the name will put some stress on the partner/rights holder relationship, and Snyder (and the NFL) can’t be thrilled when national broadcasters are so outspoken in continuing the drip, drip, drip element that’s driving this issue. But is it a tipping point that will move Snyder off his stance?   

Outside the Beltway, Snyder and his PR advisers  have consistently been on the defensive, failing to craft any convincing message as to why the name should remain. But within the Beltway, the legion of the team’s fans support their owner’s decision, for now. If the people of the District of Columbia and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Arlington and Fairfax counties were to ever take action, though, they could make a profound statement, because if that support began to erode, Snyder’s hand may be forced. 

As a side note, in a recent Turnkey Sports Poll of 2,000 senior-level sports industry executives, 48 percent of respondents said they think the team should change the name; 42 percent said it should remain Redskins. 

> OUR PLAN GOING FORWARD: We will continue to use the Redskins name in our editorial coverage in SportsBusiness Journal/Daily and Global. We understand the name causes offense to many people, but as a trade publication that covers the business of sports, we will follow the marketplace. As long as the NFL, the league’s teams, the sponsors, and the licensees and media companies that align with and use the team’s intellectual property refer to the team by its current name, so will we. 

> AN ALUM WILL“MEET THE PRESS”: A tip of the cap to my former colleague Chuck Todd, who will make his debut as the new anchor at NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday. I met Chuck in August 1994, when I joined the startup SportsBusiness Daily. He had just left The Hotline to help launch SBD, serving as assistant editor for more than a year. He taught me a ton in a short period of time: tips on how to quickly get in and out of the sketchy neighborhood where we picked up newspapers at a delivery plant in Washington, D.C., at 4:30 a.m.; how news cycles rolled; how to look for spin; and helpful ideas to curating an effective news briefing. He returned to The Hotline as editor-in-chief the following year. It’s been great fun watching his rise at NBC, and this opportunity to lead “Meet The Press” is perfect for someone who bleeds politics and sports. A well-deserved congratulations to a good man. In case you missed it, Todd talked about his role with SportsBusiness Daily during our 20th anniversary roundtable (SportsBusiness Journal, Dec. 9-15, 2013). 

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

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