What - and who - I'm watching in NFL this year
After talking to more than 20 high-level sources connected to the NFL, here are the stories and the people I’ll be keeping the closest eye on.
Gambling will of course be one of the most significant additions to the NFL landscape, but with that matter still evolving on important aspects like proprietary data and in-game presentation, the people I spoke with had the most to say on these topics:
The issue that came up most frequently as the biggest far-reaching threat to the future of the NFL was alignment — among owners; between owners and the league office; and between ownership and players. First, there is a concern from stakeholders that ownership isn’t aligned on the big issues, especially around the anthem issue. Over the past few years, owners haven’t dealt with adversity well — it’s been truly surprising to see. That’s why one key source laughed off owners colluding not to sign Colin Kaepernick, stating that the owners can’t agree on any issue, let alone something that significant. Sure, it’s easy to collectively agree when everything is going smoothly, but NFL owners are facing issues and elements they never have seen before, and most believe they aren’t dealing with them very effectively. The perception of the game and its leadership is not positive at all, and that isn’t good for anyone associated with the league, especially networks, sponsors and licensees.
The next big issue is how the league and ownership can get aligned with the players. The reason the anthem issue has been so protracted is because of management’s poor relationship with the players. Owners don’t have enough capital with the players to reach a compromise or get through this issue. There is no sense of partnership — there certainly wasn’t when owners carelessly implemented a poorly executed new anthem policy at their meeting in May without even engaging the players to be a part of the process.
The larger issue is how the current relationship will affect the upcoming CBA talks. Previous negotiations were about owners taking on the players and getting the best deal possible — bottom line. It would be encouraging if the NFL and NFLPA showed the ability to work together on big issues that influence the game and the business of the NFL. Couldn’t this anthem discussion provide a road map for collaboration that could help the next CBA talks? Could it portend a new working relationship instead of re-establishing the historical animosity and win-at-all-cost mentality? That’s my hope.
Who will lead on this issue? Everyone seems so stuck, and while there have only been a handful of players protesting, all it takes for the issue to flare up again is for President Trump to send a single tweet, which he is likely to do in order to rile up his base as the midterm elections approach. Team sources stress that fan feedback is very negative about players sitting or kneeling during the anthem, but that raising a fist or being in the tunnel wasn’t an issue. Some are hoping that fans will tire of the president’s actions, but don’t expect the NFL to respond like communications czar Joe Lockhart did last year, when he fired back at Trump and alienated Trump supporters. Lockart’s aggressive strategy infuriated certain owners and led to his short tenure at the league. Overall, what concerns me is that the players’ message is getting lost, and even more so, that the players are not getting the respect they deserve for all they are doing in the community because of the current din around this issue.
The NFL unveils a new open distribution system this season with Ticketmaster, StubHub and SeatGeek all in the mix. How well will they work together in sharing data with the league, and can this new digital ticketing landscape have a meaningful impact on attendance or customer insights? Team executives I talked to are bullish on the new deals, which allow for far greater fan data accumulation, such as allowing teams to get names of people who receive forwarded tickets, as well as vital data from the secondary market, which it never had before. Also keep an eye on how successful SeatGeek is in servicing both the Cowboys and the Saints.
Overall, there is a concern about soft ticket sales, as last year proved to be challenging to move both regular and premium seats. The league’s attendance fell by more than a half-million fans last year compared to 2016. Teams know they have to fill stadiums, because once seats are empty it fuels a negative perception and sales can easily erode over time. So how will the clubs and the league respond given the massive disruption in the ticketing industry? All this comes amid changes in the league office with Brian Lafemina, who oversaw league and club ticketing, going to Washington to be the Redskins’ president of business operations and COO, and much of it falling to VP of club business development Bobby Gallo, who receives high marks for his level of engagement with teams.
Related to the game on the field, I was surprised about how many brought up the new helmet rule, and it seems to be another divisive and misunderstood initiative. Players and coaches criticized the league for going too far, and there are concerns it won’t be applied correctly or consistently. Insiders I talked to believe it’s a positive step for health and safety but has been poorly communicated. The league got major cover from, of all people, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who said the rule represented no change for him or his coaching technique, adding “we understand it” and it seems “fairly clear cut.” That’s a powerful ally.
Television ratings are down 17 percent over the last two seasons, and I bet they will be down again. If they continue to drop, what would be the reasons cited? Two years ago, it was the election. Last year, it was the anthem. But those bullish on the league point to one very powerful data point — developed by our own Austin Karp — that in a world of challenging ratings, 64 of the top 100 shows last year were NFL games, and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has been the No. 1 prime-time show for seven years in a row. Those are the mic drops that prove how strong and valuable this programming is.
These are the individuals whose influence on the league could be substantial this year and beyond.
The League Office
ROGER GOODELL: Owners wanted NFL headquarters to be leaner in order to reduce costs and have more local autonomy, and now they have it. I can’t recall a greater loss of institutional knowledge and high-profile exits than over the offseason at 345 Park Ave. Gone are Lafemina, Lockhart, Greg Aiello, Eric Grubman, Dawn Hudson and Tod Leiweke. The league is bringing in more diverse executives with different approaches and sensibilities.
How will this affect Goodell? Can he rebound from the anthem issue, Jerry Jones and Trump attacking his contract, and frankly, an embarrassing public debate about his leadership? Although he got his new contract, we probably will never know how close owners came to moving on from him last year, and a new book by the New York Times Magazine’s Mark Leibovich that calls into question Goodell’s leadership is not the way to begin the season. He’s kept an incredibly low profile all summer and, because he doesn’t relish the public-facing aspect of the job, I wonder if this means he will do even less media this year. Goodell also has a revamped senior staff around him, so I’ll be watching to see who has his ear and who he will lean on and listen to. Goodell, who turns 60 next February, is likely on his last contract, and one wonders how that could affect his decision-making on key league issues.
MARYANN TURCKE: She was promoted to COO in March, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the league office. She succeeded Tod Leiweke, who came from the club side and moved on to work with his brother on Seattle’s NHL effort. She is seen as a smart, tough media expert. Those close to the league are anxious to see what her priorities will be, how she will influence the organization and, most of all, if she will be successful.
BRIAN ROLAPP: The NFL’s top dealmaker is someone everyone should keep an eye on. He came up from the media side, but his scope of influence touches all revenue generation. Greatly respected by ownership, Rolapp is strategically thinking about virtually every key revenue line at the league — from the way the NFL approaches its sponsorship business to taking a more active role in the next CBA. If there is one heir apparent to Goodell, most point to Rolapp.
DR. ALLEN SILLS: Many are surprised Sills hasn’t been more visible. His profile should be raised significantly, as owners are paying him to effectively sell what the NFL is doing on health and safety and convince the public and media the
approach is well-reasoned and thoughtful.
AL RIVERON: Riveron follows Dean Blandino in one of the most controversial roles in the league, that of senior VP of officiating. With the emphasis on rules, Riveron will need to regularly and effectively communicate the what and the why of the referees’ decisions.
JERRY JONES: Everyone’s wild card, he has emerged as the voice of the league in many ways. Jones likes to remind his colleagues that he is the senior owner in the room, and while insiders say there is still definite tension in his relationship with Goodell, they wonder if it can improve enough for the two to work productively on day-to-day matters. But no one seems to have a good sense of how Jones will respond on the important issues.
ARTHUR BLANK: The Falcons’ boss has really found his rhythm as an owner. He’s built one of the league’s most progressive front offices — both on the business and personnel side — and is ahead of his peers on the fan experience by installing fan-friendly pricing. He’s gaining equity with fellow owners and league insiders, and his vast sports portfolio — which includes ownership of MLS’s best success story, Atlanta United — is rapidly gaining influence.
JIMMY PITARO: Will ESPN’s new leader repair the fractured relationship with the NFL and make “Monday Night Football” relevant again? Pitaro’s early focus has been to mend fissures that have festered for years. But it won’t be easy: ESPN grates on the league’s power-brokers for its deep and relentless coverage of the NFL, and any attempt by Pitaro to tone down such efforts will be resisted in Bristol.
MICHAEL RUBIN: Rubin has built a sports giant as Fanatics dominates licensed product and has developed deep relationships with consumers. At some point, Rubin’s company will own the most robust and valuable trove of data on sports fans. And remember, the 46-year-old’s goal is to own an NFL team; he’s already very close to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, so look for him to build similar relationships with other influential owners.
JOHN COLLINS: The growth of NFL On Location Experiences in just three short years under his watch has been impressive, and with its acquisition of PrimeSport, it expands beyond the NFL and can take its learnings across other sports and events.
The Team Executives
TOM GARFINKEL: The Miami Dolphins’ president has made the team’s business operations one of the more respected in the league. He is also relocating training camp, producing the Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium and working to bring F1 to Miami.
BRIAN LAFEMINA: He joined the Redskins in May and in less than four months has revamped the staff and is aiming to change the organization’s business strategy, reputation and approach.