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Volume 22 No. 2
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Moments of clarity after Super Bowl LI

There are many moments that will stick with me from Super Bowl LI in Houston, but one stands out for its possible long-term significance.

It was when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell presented the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the Kraft family after the Patriots’ improbable victory. As Goodell was being unmercifully booed to where those at NRG Stadium could not hear a word and TV viewers had trouble as well, both Robert and Jonathan Kraft let the moment play out, with no attempt to quiet the vitriol from Patriots fans or comfort the commissioner. If this was indeed the ultimate end of Deflategate, they were going to be sure Pats fans had their shot at Goodell.

On the back of the stage, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, protagonists in both Spygate and Deflategate, could be seen laughing in an animated conversation. After a cool handshake from the Krafts, and as Robert Kraft said how the team’s win was one of the “sweetest” in his life, a shaken Goodell looked to quickly depart the back of the stage. But while he was heading down, I watched as Belichick went out of his way and grabbed Goodell’s arm and engaged in a surprisingly warm, extended conversation, with both men patting the other’s arm. It was almost as if Belichick was saying, “Hey, the fans have had their say. We’re OK, let’s move on now,” putting any animosity behind them.

This would be significant, as the two are rarely on the same side. Goodell publicly stated he didn’t believe Belichick during Spygate; Belichick routinely cites “the experts in the league office” when league policy is debated.

On Location Experiences

successfully tackles first

big test in Houston

     It was a coming-out party for On Location Experiences, the NFL’s official hospitality partner, owned by RedBird Capital Partners, Bruin Sports Capital, 32 Equity (which oversees the NFL’s investment) and Jon Bon Jovi. All in all, executives had to feel good about Houston.
     They are crafting a compelling narrative, reshaping the Super Bowl experience. Outside of game day, the hottest ticket of the week was On Location’s Club Nomadic, a custom-designed 62,500-square-foot nightclub that was packed with nearly 9,000 spectators a night from Thursday to Saturday and had such talent as Bruno Mars (Pepsi’s event) and Taylor Swift (DirecTV/AT&T). Bold-face names — NFL owners, sponsor/media executives and celebrities — were all requesting hard-to-get tickets.
     It was difficult to believe the hip venue was barren land in December, when construction began. The three-floor layout had an open feel with great sound, and Nomadic can tear it down and rebuild it in other locations.On Location executives envision this concept at other events —  Club Nomadic at the NFL draft or even film festivals?
     By managing and operating it, On Location provides an appealing option for brands and teams who won’t have to scout out venues or execute their hospitality, as it all could be handled by On Location. These experiences can be bundled with Super Bowl Sunday game  tickets with pregame and postgame events.
     On Sunday alone, On Location handled hospitality for 12,000, which went smoothly and was conveniently held inside the stadium perimeter at NRG Stadium, including pregame tailgates for the Patriots and Falcons and a separate deal to handle the Patriots’ postgame party in the 225,000-square-foot space at NRG Center that featured John Legend and brilliant digital boards showing game highlights in a party that went past 3 a.m.
     A true learning experience, year one wasn’t without its hiccups: Reports had more than two-hour waits to get into Club Nomadic, with some other logistical issues inside the venue. Pats-Falcons led to a pretty soft ticket market, and sales were said to be slow.  I’d expect organizers to engage with the corporate community much earlier next year on their hospitality needs. On Location needs to get buyers to think of a “bundle of entertainment experiences,” not just a Sunday game ticket. Look for On Location to bolt on other offerings, including air travel, hotel and other venues to fully service clubs and sponsors.
     But in this experience-based economy, by disrupting the hospitality and ticketing norms around the Super Bowl, On Location is something I’ll be closely following.
                                                  — Abe Madkour

The booing of Goodell was a cathartic moment for New England fans who will hopefully (but not likely) move on. Perhaps Belichick was making an effort to push the bad feelings between the commissioner/NFL and the Patriots organization to the past, and a détente would be beneficial to all parties and fans. For Goodell, it would end an unnecessary distraction and allow him to focus on the big picture and the major challenges facing the league.

Every conversation I had in Houston indicated that Goodell is on very strong footing with ownership.  The relationship between Goodell and the Krafts has clearly changed, but it’s productive on league issues, which is really all it needs to be.  Deflategate being officially over can only help Goodell. In Houston, I felt he had a mixed week. His state-of-the-game press conference where he went casual, with no tie, featured predictable responses and was overshadowed by an aggressive New England media that kept him on the defensive. But he was also bogged down by such micro-issues as credentialing and press transcripts — issues clearly outside a commissioner’s purview.

On the other hand, sources told me (and media reports supported) that Goodell was very good during a fan event on the Friday of his traditional press conference — where he was quick with humor and engaging — as I’ve seen him in similar formats. He also was front and center as the league continued with its second annual 1st and Future competition and Super Bowl women’s summit.

Goodell faces big issues, but one of them isn’t support of his leadership. The biggest questions are on franchise relocation and consumer engagement. On ratings and fan interest, there is little consensus on whether the problems derive from the pace of play or the advertising flow, or if there is a greater threat to football’s place in today’s culture amid concussions and CTE. Sources stress attention must be placed on the “little fixes” (ad slots, for example) while also focusing on larger, more profound challenges such as player health/safety and adding inventory —Thursday night and London early morning games — that removes solid games out of the important early window and affects ratings.

Goodell said he moved on from Deflategate long ago, but now he is fully free to focus on the game’s real challenges.

> Houston showed well for the Super Bowl. The city’s efforts to develop its downtown core paid off, where there was a hub of activity. Super Bowl Live held in Discovery Green was brimming with people all week, and new downtown hotels — including the league’s Marriott Marquis headquarters — provided more central meeting areas.

Yes, there were plenty of Ubers out to the Galleria, where a number of league partners were situated. But the goal of officials was to position Houston as a fun, global city filled with entertainment and culinary attractions. This was a strong step in that direction, and kudos to the Host Committee, led by Ric Campo, Sallie Sargent and Texans President Jamey Rootes. … Speaking of the Texans, they had one of the cooler central venues downtown, as they took over The Grove restaurant right in the mix of Super Bowl Live. With indoor/outdoor seating, it was a comfortable, hopping venue for the team’s partners and other corporations. The venue was managed by On Location Experiences. … Super Bowl week is extending. For years, I could arrive Wednesday or Thursday morning and see everything.  But now, more and more events, including the commissioner’s press conference shifting to Wednesday, are being held earlier in the week, allowing the league to produce more and more programming and getting a longer, larger share of the news cycle. … I was very disappointed — but not surprised — that former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue barely missed induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The debate around Tagliabue was said to be the longest and most intense of the selection meeting, and one source said the 17-year commissioner missed by one vote.  There is a slim, but unlikely, chance he will get considered again, which is a true shame.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at