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Volume 20 No. 42
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NFL in strong position but plenty of issues to watch

It seems to be written every year, but everything is lining up for the NFL to have another strong business year. The preseason interest is high; there are strong new story lines with Andrew Luck and RGIII; there is a sense of parity, while the teams in top markets and key draws like Dallas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and New York/New England all seem strong. The Saints provide a compelling us vs. the league element, Peyton Manning returns to the field in a new uniform and in a new city, the Tim Tebow factor remains, and TV partners have scheduled more shoulder programming to ensure a consistent din of NFL news. As evidenced by the buzz leading up to NFL Kickoff, sponsors are aggressively activating and drawn to the league’s big-event strategy, and new licensing partners like Nike should reignite merchandise sales.

But there are some areas to watch. Although presale ticket numbers were strong, keep an eye on gate attendance to see whether fans are turning away from the in-venue experience and choosing to stay home. Teams have put major emphasis on actual ticket sales and filling their stadiums with enhancements, incentives and on-site activation. For a league that has seen slight attendance erosion, this is an issue to watch. Keep an eye also on safety — on the field and in the stadium with fans — to see whether those uncomfortable issues continue to worsen or whether issues seem under control.

The early-season threat that the league should have avoided is the current (as of press time) standoff with officials. This issue may be one that certain league executives feel strongly about and feel is vital to the league’s future, but it’s a total loser in the public arena. Fans won’t back either side, but the league can only lose from a PR perspective. If fans believe that the gold standard of a sports product — the NFL — becomes a less-than-professional experience, they will vent. Yes, they will be engaged with the product, but the officials could become “the story” and not the game itself. This is a distraction that the NFL would be smart — and is smart enough — to avoid.

One thing to watch is whether the quality of officiating is discussed by the NFL’s network partners. While those at 345 Park Ave. will surely hope their TV partners dial back comment, let’s hope the Aikmans, Collinsworths, Grudens and Simmses of the world are vocal — good or bad — on the quality of possible replacement refs. If there is a feeling that the officials are not of NFL quality, that type of public on-air pressure from those who know the game could certainly expedite any deal.

FROM THE FILES: ESPN’s extension with MLB was smart for both sides. The deal was not the least bit of a surprise, not even the beefy rights fee increase. Fact is, they need each other. ESPN needs the tonnage of baseball content to fill its summer schedule, and MLB needs the promotion on the country’s biggest sports networks — both with their live games and shoulder programming like “Baseball Tonight.” … Finally from the home office, SportsBusiness Daily will be launching our “Weekend Rap” news feed starting this Sunday. It will be a brief, breezy read on all the key weekend news, with links to top stories, Twitter trends, highlights of the week ahead and, of course, the popular Back Pages. I hope you’ll give it a read and let us know what you think.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at