SBJ/Sept. 4-10, 2017/Opinion

The stories and people in the NFL worth watching this season

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After talking to numerous sources connected to the NFL, here are the stories and people I’m watching this season.

LABOR PAINS: Labor relations has emerged as a growing, contentious issue even three years before the current CBA expires. NFL players are sideways after seeing the massive guaranteed contracts that NBA free agents signed this summer. But let’s face it: the leverage is with the owners. Owners will have no problem saying, “We will stay with the deal we have.” Remember in 2011, it was the players saying that — which forced owners to take action. I expect dramatic statements from the NFLPA and reserved ones from the NFL. Of all the sports, the NFL has the biggest disconnect with its players, so keep an eye on how far the players push the envelope. A couple of other points: The issue is a loser with fans and business partners; and I don’t believe any player strike will ever result in guaranteed contracts.

While we’re on the topic of labor, it’s obvious that the relationship between the owners/league and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith hasn’t improved after all these years — indicative by Smith’s recent interview on HBO’s “Real Sports.” Will player reps vote to extend his leadership in October or will they consider outside challengers? Washington, D.C., attorney Cyrus Mehri has already declared his intention to run against Smith, and Mehri is a serious, formidable figure.

PLAYER HEALTH AND SAFETY: The constant drumbeat of concussions is bad for the game. Corporate partners don’t wish for their brand to be associated with the issue and it makes watching the NFL less enjoyable and parents less interested in their children playing the game. The NFL can lead on this issue — Every play, every game this season will be a proof point. The league is losing the day-to-day public relationship battle, but they believe they are well positioned to win the long-term narrative. They feel they have plans in place, which will pay off over the next decade to ensure a far safer game. They still need to support medical research and work with the medical/health community, as it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the science and the studies.

First Look podcast — arrival of the NFL and plenty to discuss:


The landscape of the NFL this season provides plenty of issues on and off the field that will dominate sports conversations.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


GLOBAL EFFORTS: The efforts in England are going very well, and this year sees four games in the U.K. Mark Waller, who has a big voice at the league, has made the London games profitable and what was long seen as an experiment is now a moneymaker. But that is one country. They are seeing gains in Mexico City and this year’s Patriots-Raiders game in November could be a major success. But where can the league expand outside London? Germany and Vancouver have been discussed as future game sites, but efforts in China have difficulty getting traction. The cost of staging a game in the country is enormous, but the NFL’s deal with Tencent will expose the game to millions of potential fans.

Meanwhile, the NFL is putting a lot of muscle behind growing its NFL Game Pass internationally. Instead of selling Game Pass out of Los Angeles as it has done, the league hired local experts to push the service. It tapped Bruin Sports Capital, the Italy-based Deltatre group and WPP to help it grow in Europe, and U.K.-based Perform Group to handle Game Pass sales outside of Europe. The NFL feels this area of their business is vastly underserved.

VERIZON’S RENEWAL: One of the most interesting deals in all of sports is Verizon’s streaming deal, which is entering its final year. At every other league, networks secure TV Everywhere rights alongside their live game rights. The NFL has more leverage than other leagues, though, and carved out a set of mobile rights that it sold to Verizon. The biggest questions now deal with what a renewal could look like and whether Verizon has the appetite to pay substantially more for those rights. Could the NFL go back to the networks and re-open their deals by dangling these new rights? And don’t forget about the NFL’s big relationship with DirecTV, which now is owned by AT&T – a company that certainly would want to pick up those mobile phone rights.

We are seeing sports’ business models change before our eyes. It’s clear that the NFL’s deals with the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon are driving business far more than traditional major sponsorships with brands like PepsiCo and Anheuser Busch.

THE FUTURE OF TICKETING: Another major league deal to be resolved is the leaguewide primary and secondary ticketing deal with Ticketmaster. There has been a moratorium on signing any new primary deals and the league has been closely examining an open platform. What will that open platform look like? Ticketmaster will likely still be the main provider. What other companies could plug in — StubHub, SeatGeek, Vivid? The league wants widespread distribution and discovery points. Also, how will ticketing be integrated into CRM, concessions, memberships and other verticals? Clubs also will gain in receiving a larger rights fee.

AMAZON’S THURSDAY PACKAGE: All eyes will be on how Amazon handles live streaming of the Thursday night games after it paid $50 million for the one-year deal. I have little doubt that Amazon’s streams will be clean. But I will be looking to see how Amazon improves the user experience. How much will the NFL increase subscriptions to Amazon Prime? The NFL believes that it is responsible for the success of ESPN, Fox and DirecTV. Can this be a game changer for Amazon Prime? It will bode well for all future sports media rights negotiations if an OTT player like Amazon can grow its business on the back of sports rights.

CATCH THE SPIRITS: The league approved spirits advertising for the first time, but media buyers don’t expect a barrage of ads this season like the daily fantasy space, as those brands aim to engage consumers through experiences, not advertising. But partners and agency executives continually compliment league officials for being more open-minded than ever in conversations about changing the current commercial models, and most credit Tod Leiweke for that.

TO LIVE AND THRIVE IN L.A.: There are so many angles to the NFL’s effort in Los Angeles, which isn’t off to the start that many had hoped. But they are playing the long game. The sports market in the nation’s second-largest city is going through a major transition and it will be interesting to see where the NFL fits into this. You have construction of the massive $2.6 billion development in Inglewood (which can’t have any more delays) and a Summer Olympics that, even 11 years away, will fight for oxygen and press coverage. What I’ll be watching: First, the relationship between Mark Davis and Stan Kroenke-Dean Spanos over who “owns” L.A. fans; second, the fan experience at both StubHub Center (will the 27,000-seat venue be a model for the future?) and the L.A. Coliseum (can they improve upon it from last year?); third, the local TV ratings for the Chargers and Rams to gauge which team is a stronger draw. Both teams are in the market selling tickets now — as well as PSL and premium suites for their future home in Inglewood. All this comes as the ability to purchase a ticket on the secondary market is easier than ever. Let’s face it, the early fan response has been soft and the teams need to win to jump-start interest, and many believe the Chargers are closer to being successful.

People to keep an eye on

BRIAN ROLAPP: He oversees one of the most important businesses for the league — the cross section of media and technology. One source estimated that nearly 80 percent of league revenue goes through his office, and numerous executives talked about how frequently they are intersecting with him on key strategic efforts. I will be keeping an eye not only on Rolapp’s strategy, but also how he executes it.

DR. ALLEN SILLS: Hired in March from Vanderbilt Medical Center, he is running point on all player health and safety. This was a key hire for the league, so I’ll be watching how visible Sills is with the media and players.

CLARK HUNT: The Chiefs owner is very well respected by league leaders and fellow owners. Just look at the committees he is on — Goodell’s hand-picked Chairman’s Committee, the Management Executive Committee, Finance Committee and Digital Media Committee — and you see he is in the mix on every major issue. One league insider raved about Hunt’s quiet, yet thoughtful approach while another raved about his intellect.

JEFF PASH: While preparing the strategy for the next round of labor talks with Bob Batterman, he will also likely be dealing with an angry Jerry Jones, who won’t hide his fury over the league’s handling of the Ezekiel Elliott case. Pash already has been criticized by Robert and Jonathan Kraft over Deflategate, and now could be a target of Jones.

JERRY JONES: What will be the fallout from the Elliott suspension? Jones has disagreed with the approach of the league office and special counsel Lisa Friel when it comes to player investigations, believing local law enforcement should handle these legal issues. If prominent owners like Jones openly criticize the league office, it could indicate a league office out of alignment with the owners instead of supportive and on the same page. Also, Jones’ role with Legends continues to snag more lucrative NFL-related business and will continue to be closely watched by fellow owners.

JERRY RICHARDSON: Insiders stress his leadership is truly missed by owners and the league office, as his absence from league affairs has been clearly evident. Prior to the vote on Los Angeles, Richardson was deeply engaged on every major issue and was a pivotal leader in the 2011 labor deal. In addition, he was known to visit the league office and randomly take staffers to lunch. That touch, voice, perspective and wise counsel is greatly missing.
                                         — Abraham D. Madkour
The L.A. effort is missing a big, bold leader. Who will be the personality, the marketing visionary of one of the leading entertainment brands in the entertainment capital of the world? It won’t be Stan Kroenke or Dean Spanos and it reinforces how this transition clearly lacks the sharp persona of a Bob Iger.

While we are on the topic of L.A., who will buy naming rights to the Inglewood facility? There are already massive numbers being whispered in the marketplace, and I wonder if Jerry Jones helps push a deal over the finish line because of Legends’ involvement.

Speaking of Legends, which has the PSL and suite sales assignment for the Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas, who will sell naming rights/founding partnerships for the facility? If Legends does win this lucrative assignment, do we start to see owners question enriching Jerry Jones with future deals?

SECURITY: One team executive walked me through the significant steps they are doing locally to ensure fan safety, with more than 100 metal detectors at entry points and more than 300 uniformed police on site. More and more facilities are also fully staffing state-of-the-art command centers. But the threat level for events has never been higher. Security can’t be a place where they cut funding.

DATA WATCH: The NFLPA’s investment in Whoop provided Whoop bands to all players and it will be worth watching if they monetize that data this season, or if a player uses his data on social media as a way to engage fans.

PLAYER PROTESTS: The league is right in not fighting the protests; but I do wonder if the issue becomes a drag on the league itself. The players sending a message must back up their activism with real efforts in the community, hopefully through civility and respectful discourse. I have no idea where this issue goes from here.

EQUITY AND GAMBLING: How can the league get to $25 billion by 2027? First, how many more equity stakes will it make? The NFL isn’t interested in operating businesses, so expect to see more of the type of equity stakes the league made in Fanatics and On Location Experiences.

Also, many insiders believe that the only way the league achieves its $25 billion target is by finding a path to legalized gambling. There’s no sport better suited for it, and this is an area being explored further, especially with the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear the New Jersey gambling case.

SCREEN PASSES: The Titans ownership remains a sticky situation, and with a one-third, non-controlling stake up for sale, it will be interesting to see who buys it and if the overall situation can be resolved amicably. … A number of team and league officials are closely watching the Chiefs and Jets, who both introduced mobile-based ticket pass products that offer discounted prices but no fixed seat location or transferability. The Jets’ “Boarding Pass” has already sold out for 2017. … Does Sean McManus’ gamble on Tony Romo pay off and how well-versed will he be in covering the AFC? … Will out-of-home TV viewership data (which league executives are bullish on) be impactful enough to drive ratings or affect ad rates? Is an out-of-home viewer equal to an in-home viewer? Ad buyers don’t believe so. … The league’s 100th season in 2019, an initiative being spearheaded by the sharp Pete Abitante, is seen as a defining moment for the league and Roger Goodell’s leadership. Also, the league’s continued efforts at increasing gender and ethnic diversity in their ranks. … Don’t underestimate how important it is for the Cowboys and the Raiders to get out of the gates well. The impact those two have on ratings and licensed product sales is massive. … Will we see the emergence of a new generation of star quarterbacks in the likes of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston? … Finally, the journey of the New England Patriots, the Kraft family, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. They have to be a main storyline of the season, as a run for a sixth Super Bowl by a 40-year-old QB and a coach potentially cementing immortality puts them in a historic setting rarely seen.

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

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