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Volume 21 No. 26
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How Three Musketeers’ credo could turn perception of NFL

Ihave always loved the NFL — even when my beloved Steelers were a laughingstock in the 1950s and ’60s. In fact, they were so bad that when the Vikings joined the NFL, they became my team and I was such a fan that I was on the fence at the start of Super Bowl IX. However, the Steel Curtain convinced me it was time to assert my hometown allegiance.

I also grew up loving books and movies that depicted groups banded together to solve problems and establish a better way of life. King Arthur, Robin Hood, anything with John Wayne, but my favorite might have been the Three Musketeers. I loved the Three Musketeers because of their central credo: All for one and one for all, a selfless approach for the common good.

As I began my career in sports business in the late 1970s and early ’80s, three people caught my attention by doing things the right way: Bill Veeck, Pete Rozelle and David Stern. All were about the good of the game, fan development and growing the game to benefit all of the teams, regardless of market size. I read “Veeck as in Wreck” and later in my career actually worked for Commissioner Stern, but it was a book about the NFL by David Harris that really shaped my early thoughts about sports business and sports marketing in particular. That book, “The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL,” published in 1986, brought together a concept born out of the Three Musketeers credo and an intelligent approach to managing and growing a business. That concept was simply called “League Think.”

Three who did things the right way: NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, NBA Commissioner David Stern (below) and MLB team owner and executive Bill Veeck.
Photos by: GETTY IMAGES
League Think was defined in the book as Rozelle’s approach: “One of the key things that a sports league needs is unity of purpose. It needs harmony … when you have unity and harmony and can move basically as one, you can have a successful sports league.” Favorable results are a product of the degree to which each league can stabilize itself through its own competitive balance and leaguewide income potential. According to Rozelle: “When we stay together on something, we’re normally successful and we grow. When we splinter off, we’re not as successful.” The “all for one and one for all” mentality came into play when the owners of the three large-market teams — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — agreed to share television revenue equally among ALL teams. This ensured the survival of small-market teams like the Green Bay Packers and paved the way for collaboration among all teams regardless of market size and ownership pedigree to grow the NFL into the amazing business that it has become.

Fast forward into this decade and cracks began getting wider and wider in the adherence to the League Think philosophy as individual interests and beliefs began affecting the operation of the league and the perception

of the NFL among its financial supporters, current and former players and, most importantly, the fans.

Anthem protests, player code-of-conduct issues and enforcement, player safety, declining television ratings, franchise movement, criticism by corporate partners and an anticipated decline in the number of participants actually playing football are all direct factors. Indirectly, the popularity of soccer (primarily MLS and EPL), the emergence of esports and the popularity of other professional sports such as the NBA all have had some impact upon the perception and standing of the NFL.

The Turnkey Sports Poll of sports executives taken in September 2017 and published in the Oct. 30 issue of SportsBusiness Journal would seem to bear this out: The NBA was chosen as the “hottest property for sponsors” and the NFL was No. 2, but the NBA was mentioned twice as often.


Also, a nationwide survey by Morning Consult showed that between the opening week of preseason games and Oct. 18, the percentage of fans with a “favorable view of the NFL” declined from more than 80 percent to 55 percent.

Perhaps the most damning perception of the NFL came in the SBJ/SBD Reader Survey published on Nov. 27, 2017. In that survey:

• President Trump vs. the NFL was the year’s biggest sports business story.
• More than two-thirds of the voters indicated that they would be uncomfortable with their child playing tackle football. (I would speculate that the number might be higher given Ryan Shazier’s injury in a prime-time game in December.)
• 57 percent of the voters identified the NFL as the sports property headed in the wrong direction.
• 67 percent of the voters felt that the NFL was the league most likely to miss games because of contentious negotiations in its next CBA.
• Buying a franchise in the NFL in the next five years was seen as the least wise investment among the five major sports leagues in the U.S.
• Roger Goodell was not ranked in the top-four responses when asked who was the most effective commissioner.
• Less than 4 percent of the respondents listed the NFL as offering the most family-friendly game/event experience.

Enough!!! As I wrote the above, I felt I was guilty of piling on and should be penalized. But again — I love the NFL, so here are my suggestions with regard to returning to a League Think approach.

Adopt a fans-first mentality. Ask opinions, keep fans informed — possibly forming a national fan advisory council enabling the commissioner’s office to periodically check the thermostat before making decisions. (I hereby volunteer.)

Adopt a partnership approach in communicating with the players. The NFLPA has team representatives. Why not form the PBNFL — Partnership for a Better NFL, and get player input before creating programs or making decisions.

Continue to improve diversity through hiring practices, especially in terms of decision-making and communication at all levels. Diversity of thought is critical to a healthy organization.

It really is an “all for one and one for all” approach that is needed if the NFL is to stabilize public perception and once again begin moving in the right direction. Battling on the field is one thing, but battling everywhere else usually leads people to seek a more harmonious place to spend their time.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.