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Volume 21 No. 2

Leagues and Governing Bodies

NFL teams will be able to use their own game footage for their websites and their mobile offerings for the first time next season.

The move, outlined at the NFL’s annual owners meeting last week, is linked to the league’s plan to launch NFL Now, its over-the-top digital content network. That debut is slated for this summer.

“If you go back five years ago, it didn’t make sense to populate the desktop environment with game footage,” said New England Patriots President Jonathan Kraft, who is co-chairman of the league’s digital media committee. “But as we looked to the future, and trying to create suitable content for the mobile environment, it was critical that snippets of game footage be inserted into the club-produced content.”

That club-produced content, now enlivened with highlights, will also be provided to fans en masse through NFL Now.

The game footage that teams will be able to provide is the same type of video from the league’s network broadcast partners that previously has been available to fans via but not through the team-specific websites.

In tandem with that development for NFL Now — an initiative that was first announced during Super Bowl week — clubs have been required to turn over to the league for use on NFL Now large swaths of their team-specific video content, such as footage from coaches press conferences. That content will fuel the video-driven network’s plan to have 32 distinct links for team content, as well as national material.

NFL officials felt that the teams’ local content to date was not reaching as many viewers as possible. By bringing it all under one roof, the content conceivably will capture more eyeballs than it has drawn while being kept in each respective team’s digital home.

Some team officials have voiced concerns about content demands they anticipate from the creation of NFL Now. There’s also been concern that the league-level offering might cannibalize some of the teams’ local efforts. Additionally, many clubs will have to ramp up their video-content operations in order to meet the NFL’s requirements of what each team provides.

Each team, however, will be allowed to sell ads associated with their video that’s presented on NFL Now and be able to keep that resulting revenue. The league also can place ads with the content, though, and in that case, any revenue will be split — with the one particular club keeping 50 percent and the remainder being split among the other 31 teams.

By placing the ads themselves, clubs can ensure a spot is not sold to a company that might conflict with a local sponsor. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, would not want to see a Coca-Cola ad associated with their coach’s show when presented on NFL Now given that Pepsi is a major Cowboys sponsor.

Additional NFL Now revenue that will be divided evenly among all 32 clubs will come from the national content provided for the offering by NFL Network and NFL Films. That content is expected to make up about half the total content envisioned for NFL Now, one source said.

“The league and teams, under [Commissioner Roger Goodell’s] leadership, have always been looking for ways for clubs to have new opportunities to grow their revenues,” Kraft said. “The NFL Now concept … will give the clubs a revenue-generating opportunity that they haven’t had in the past.”

NFL ticket revenue increased roughly 4 percent in the 2013-14 season from the year before, a notable increase from the lower single-digit increases of previous years, according to sources familiar with the data. News of the increase was presented to owners at the meeting.

In total, 18 teams raised their season-ticket prices last year, and 13 kept them flat. One team (the league wouldn’t identify which one) lowered prices.

Since the 2008 financial crash, and then in the more recent years with a heavy focus on keeping stadiums full, NFL ticket revenue has been flat to only slightly up for the league. While a 4 percent increase is not a hefty jump, it is a sign teams are more comfortable bumping up prices.

Additionally, in some of the cases where the average ticket price is flat, that description doesn’t tell the whole story. Take the Jacksonville Jaguars, for example, who are in the flat category. As Jaguars President Mark Lamping noted, Jacksonville shifted 1,500 seats at EverBank Field from non-premium to premium seating. Premium seats do not count toward a club’s average ticket price, so while the Jaguars’ average ticket price officially was flat, the team’s ticket revenue was up.

Dennis Lauscha, president of the New Orleans Saints, said his team had not raised ticket prices in recent years but notified their season-ticket holders of an increase for 2014 earlier this month.

What could not be determined is how much extra revenue the league took in with the increase. But the growth could explain in part the higher-than-expected jump in the salary cap for 2014, increasing by $10 million, to $133 million. Some of that increase is due to revenue that will come from the new CBS Thursday night TV package, but many league followers remained puzzled over where the last few million dollars per club came in. It’s possible that higher-than-expected ticket revenue gave the cap that boost.

The NFL decided not to loosen rules further on audio prompts telling fans to get loud.

MAKE A LITTLE LESS NOISE: The NFL has taken numerous strides in recent years to make the in-stadium experience more enjoyable. Last week, however, the league took at least one step in the opposite direction, deciding to pull back on one particular in-stadium element.

The NFL last year let teams use audio crowd prompts up to 20 seconds before a snap, dropping from the league’s prior 30-second rule. The NFL’s fan-experience committee had wanted to drop the time even further, to 15 seconds before the snap, but the competition committee balked at that suggestion. Further, the league ruled that as soon as the center’s hands go on the ball, even if that occurs outside the 20-second mark, the audio prompts must stop then. So, if the center’s hands go on the ball 30 seconds before a snap, the prompts must cease at that point.

Bornstein: A formal goodbye

There were two areas where the league decided to add to its fan-experience initiatives. In-game injury reports must now be put on stadium video boards or ribbon boards at the same time they are announced in the press box. (Currently, many teams do not post them in-stadium at all). Second, locker room camera footage will be used in-stadium during next season’s three London games and the Super Bowl. All teams currently are required to have the locker room cameras in place, but there is no mandate on how to, or if to, use the footage. It’s unclear if the London and Super Bowl games are a first step to mandating use during other games.

BRAVO, BORNSTEIN: NFL Network President and CEO Steve Bornstein received three ovations from the owners as he said goodbye at what was his last annual meeting. Bornstein arrived at the NFL in 2002 after a career at ESPN and helped create the NFL Network and craft a series of TV deals with ever-escalating rights fees. He announced his plans to depart last summer.

Bornstein said he will be at the NFL draft in May, though, and one source said he would also manage the NFL Honors program, the awards showcase the league hosts in the Super Bowl city the night before the game.

Stephen Ross’ Dolphins are expected to bid for the Super Bowl if stadium renovations occur.

TAKING AIM AT 2019: Owners will choose between Indianapolis, New Orleans and Minneapolis to host the 2018 Super Bowl at their May meeting, but interest is already building for the 2019 game, as well. Atlanta, where a new stadium will be built, plans to throw its hat into the ring. Miami also is expected if Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is successful in reaching a funding deal for renovating SunLife Stadium. And one, if not both, of the losing bidders for the 2018 game could get back into the mix for 2019, too.

The 2019 game host will be chosen at the May 2015 owners meeting.

REDSKINS START FOUNDATION: The Washington Redskins, long under attack for its nickname, unveiled a foundation here designed to help tribes. The head of the foundation, Gary Edwards, a former U.S. Secret Service official and a Native American, met with owners at the meeting and sat for interviews with reporters. He emphatically said during his comments that the team name is not a slur.

Whatever the case — and the new foundation clearly won’t fully quell opposition to the nickname — the newly established Washington Redskins Original American Foundation will fund projects on reservations. Edwards would not say how much funding the foundation is starting with but said that once the first tax return is filed, that information would become public.

Supovitz: Towed off

WHERE’S MY CAR?: The Super Bowl postgame transportation mess is by now a well-told story, with New Jersey Transit unable to keep up with demand for trains to and from MetLife Stadium. But there was another transit mishap that day that was not widely reported. Frank Supovitz, the league’s senior vice president of events, departed the stadium at about 1:30 in the morning, after ensuring the last fan had left the facility. He went to the parking lot — only to find that his car was gone.

Supovitz called security and discovered that a company hired by the NFL had earlier that day towed all cars in his parking area to the other side of the stadium, to make room for incoming buses. Supovitz obviously was none too happy that no one had told him when he parked that there might be a problem. He declined to give the name of the transport company, but it’s safe to presume that the company has been informed about what happened.

TAKING A GLOBAL VIEW: Despite some published reports last week that the NFL was discussing a fourth London game for 2015, Chris Parsons, the league’s senior vice president of international, said such talk was not accurate. Instead, the league’s international committee will meet next month to begin those discussions, and if there were to be an expansion of the London slate, owners would vote on it in October.

The three London games for 2014 are sold out. Asked what the best market outside of the U.K. is for the NFL, Parsons did not hesitate with his reply: Mexico. But don’t expect a game there any time soon. Not only is the NFL putting its eggs in the U.K. basket, but Mexico also has aging facilities that do not meet the NFL’s stadium requirements, Parsons said.

EXTRA POINTS: Word at the meeting was that the Mara and McCaskey families had four generations of family members at the meeting hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes. The Maras co-own the Giants; the McCaskeys own the Bears. Many team owners and executives use the annual meeting as de facto family vacation. Additionally, the night before the meeting ends, each team owner typically goes out to dinner with the club’s staff. That is one of the reasons the meeting does not end early, even though there was less than an hour of business to discuss on Wednesday morning. … Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s arm is in a sling after recent shoulder surgery. … Next year’s annual meeting will be at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, which hosted the event last year. is shining a bigger spotlight on games.

The NHL on its home page recently debuted a new look that features a larger navigational bar with the scores and time clock of all games being played. The central position of the page then highlights one game — based on fan preferences or an obvious top game of the night — with a scoreboard, updated statistics and running social media commentary.

“We felt that our home page didn’t do the best job with the game experience,” said John Pacino, vice president of digital design at the NHL. “It was more news-driven. We made the change because fans are coming to at night to get connected to the games.”

League officials decided it made sense after the March 5 trade deadline had passed to alter the emphasis from player personnel news to game results during the chase for playoff berths and through the Stanley Cup Final in June. Of course, there also were business considerations.

“We wanted to drive even more awareness of GameCenter Live,” said Stephen McArdle, NHL executive vice president of digital media and strategic planning, referring to the league’s game-streaming product that is touted as part of the new-look nav bar.

The new evening design (top) and the daytime site 

“There’s a more in-your-face view of what’s going on that night, and that includes GameCenter Live sampling. We’ve taken what’s going on during the games, and also around the games with analysis and social media, and placed it more up front.”

The new-look scoreboards on the home page only appear while games are being played. Each morning, returns to having its prior focus on news and features.

The new look also is presented only on the league site, not on the sites of the NHL’s 30 teams. According to McArdle, there are no plans to attach a sponsor to the new scoreboards at this time.

The early results have been positive. Although he declined to divulge specifics, McArdle said new subscriptions to GameCenter Live “have increased at a rate in excess of last season at this time.” He also said that since the change to the home page format debuted, “We’re seeing an increase in page views and in time spent on the site. The impact has been powerful.”

The code for the new scoreboards was written by Pacino’s design team, which is based out of the league’s headquarters in New York. Pacino worked with NeuLion, the NHL’s Long Island-based technology partner on GameCenter Live, to optimize video quality and traffic flow.

As for how the highlighted game is selected for specific users, Pacino said, “If you are locked into your account, we will default you to the game of your favorite team that you selected in your profile. If you don’t have an account but, say, have spent a lot of time on, the lead game on our home page for you will be the Rangers game. Our editorial staff can also set up a game of the night, in the case of a game of major significance: a big rivalry, a national telecast, a huge game in the standings.”

The league has monitored response on Twitter and Facebook to the changes. After fans suggested that the scoreboards would be easier to read if they weren’t on a light-tinted background, Pacino’s staff created a darker background that debuted last week.

“The response has been very positive,” McArdle said, “but we’re also open to suggestions from the fans.”

On the morning last week after telling his NFL peers that Buffalo Bills founder and owner Ralph Wilson had died, Russ Brandon, the team’s president, was trying to work out. His hope, he said, was that it would be sort of a spiritual exercise, a way to distract himself from the sadness of losing his friend and mentor.

The Bills played their first season in 1960.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
It didn’t work. Wiping his forehead afterward, Brandon said he’d had no such luck losing himself through exertion. And then he trudged off, sadly, making his way through the hotel lobby in his sneakers and shorts.

It is Brandon who for now looks to be the face of the franchise, at least until the team is sold from Wilson’s estate. That process itself could take a year, if not more. Jeff Littmann, the team’s chief financial officer — who has worked in Detroit out of corporate offices where he also managed other businesses for Wilson — will oversee the trust handling the team and, ultimately, its sale.

Principally, everyone wants to know what will happen to the Bills: Will they stay in economically challenged Buffalo? For the moment, the answers to questions about the team’s future ownership and its future home are all unknowable, even though rumors were already rampant last week. On the night that Wilson died, at the bar of the Orlando Ritz-Carlton hotel where the owners had gathered for their annual meeting, one football source loudly insisted that Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula would be the guy — but of course, right now, it’s too soon.

What is known is that the Bills’ 10-year lease, signed last year, makes it hard to move the club until 2020. Until then, the team would face a $400 million payment for leaving. After a one-year respite, when the penalty drops significantly, it would again become onerous to depart the last three years of the lease. In return, the state of New York agreed to help fund a $130 million renovation of Ralph Wilson Stadium, one of the lowest revenue-producing venues in the league.

Wilson with Cowboys’ Jerry Jones in 2006
Photo by: AP IMAGES
Wilson, who was 95, always bore conflicted feelings about the surging growth of the NFL. He famously had founded the Bills in 1959 by paying $25,000 to help start the American Football League. He even loaned $400,000 to the Oakland Raiders to keep them afloat in the early years of the league, which ultimately would merge with the NFL in 1970.

By the 2000s, it appeared the league was leaving Wilson behind in Buffalo. Speaking to SportsBusiness Journal in 2005, Wilson said he did not understand why so many new stadiums had to be built, and he said he saw no problem with a team playing in his stadium. The problem with the league’s growing revenue disparity between clubs at the time, he said, was caused by new stadiums. And he took deep umbrage at comments made by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that lack of marketing was the problem in places like Buffalo.

Fast forward to the present, and the bulk of the issue that gripped Wilson a decade ago has vanished, due in large part to the 2011 collective-bargaining agreement, which shifted a great deal of resources from the players to the owners and has helped to diminish the disparity between clubs. And, with the continued growth of the league’s national TV contracts, the percentage of shared revenue in the NFL is approaching 85 percent, meaning Buffalo can compete with clubs in larger markets.

In 2006, Wilson and Mike Brown, the Cincinnati Bengals’ owner, were the only two votes against that year’s CBA, a deal the league’s other owners ultimately would turn against as well. Within two years of the 2006 vote, the owners opted out of the agreement, setting the stage for the 2011 lockout.

Coming out of the 2006 meeting in the basement of the Dallas airport hotel where the owners approved the CBA, a reporter asked Wilson why he voted no.

Ralph Wilson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“I didn’t understand it,” he said.

Many laughed at that comment, convinced the NFL had passed him by. But while his beloved Bills never regained their 1990s form on the field — a period marked by four consecutive AFC championships — Wilson would prove a lot smarter than many understood that night with his no vote.

Asked last week if he ever spoke with Wilson about feeling vindicated by their votes that year, Brown laughed at the question.

“There is not much vindication around here,” he said.

Last week, there might not have been any vindication for having the foresight to buy the Bills, start the AFL or vote against the 2006 CBA — but there was clearly among NFL owners a great deal of sorrow and much respect for the passing of one of the league’s ownership greats.