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Volume 22 No. 7

Leagues and Governing Bodies

Commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t have much to answer for last week in Dallas.
Photo: AP Images

For years, one of the knocks against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been his stiffness in front of the media. Unflattering comparisons have been made to his media-friendly NBA counterpart, Adam Silver, and are often cited when discussing the league’s problems.


But the NFL’s new PR hierarchy, led by Jocelyn Moore, executive vice president of communications, may have discovered a solution: Answer the media’s questions before they get to Goodell. This was the way things were handled at last week’s NFL meetings in Dallas, where there were four separate media briefings with league executives, leaving Goodell to field only a handful of questions at his regular end-of meeting press conference. His session lasted less than four minutes. Typically, they go for at least 20 minutes.


“No more questions?” Goodell asked with surprise when it was clear no more reporters’ hands were aloft. “Jocelyn, you did too good a job, they got all their information. That’s good.”


Moore has largely stayed behind the scenes since being named to her post in the summer. She has declined to talk about how she will handle PR compared with her predecessor, Joe Lockhart, so this meeting was one of the first times to see her approach in action.


“For this particular meeting, we thought it might be helpful to provide ongoing media updates throughout the day, instead of waiting until the end,” she emailed. “The feedback we have received from the press thus far has been very positive.”


Earlier, when asked if this was an attempt to shield Goodell from the media, she replied that was not the point.


The briefings handled by the other executives were: on-field play (Rich McKay, Falcons president and the chairman of the competition committee) and concussions (Jeff Miller, executive vice president of health and safety); the NFL’s player misconduct investigations (Todd Jones, special counsel); the league’s diversity efforts (Robert Gulliver, executive VP for human resources and chief diversity officer); and the announcement of the 2020 draft in Las Vegas (Raiders owner Mark Davis).


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Owners voted to allow clubs to charge higher prices on a greater number of stadium seats. League rules had required that only 2,500 main stadium seats could be priced higher than the base price for a club seat or suite ticket. That figure is now 6,000, which will allow teams to offer more and higher price points. The reason for the core rule tying club-seat base prices to stadium seats is somewhat complicated but involves ensuring a proper balance between the core club-seat ticket price and premium, which funds stadium debt in many cases.


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How to make the Pro Bowl more interesting is a recurring issue for the NFL. In the last few weeks the league has begun discussions with Your Call Football, a league in which fans can call plays through an app. The discussions are early and it’s too late for the 2019 game in January, but the possibility of fans calling some or all of the plays is something to watch for in 2020.


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Speaking of events, the 2019 draft in Nashville will feature the largest outdoor stage ever used in the state, a structure that will be on the city’s main strip. The league also expects to book A-level musical acts for the draft, which has become a three-day football festival.


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will give up a home game next year for an international game. There are five international games scheduled: four in London and one in Mexico City. The Jacksonville Jaguars annually play a home game in London, and league rules require teams in temporary stadiums — in this case the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers, and the Oakland Raiders — to give up a home game to be played overseas. It’s not clear whether the Bucs will play in London or Mexico, but the Raiders’ popularity south of the border suggests they will play in Mexico City, sending Tampa Bay across the pond.


Of course, the big question is where the Raiders will play their seven other home games in 2019. Their lease is up later this month, the city of Oakland is suing them over their relocation to Las Vegas, and the Vegas stadium will not be ready until 2020. Team President Marc Badain declined to offer a deadline for deciding, noting that the schedule does not come out until April. Team owner Mark Davis ruled out only San Antonio as a possible home for next season, because of what he called bad field conditions at the Alamodome. That was ironic given that the previous Sunday Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Chris Boswell slipped while attempting a game-tying, 40-yard field goal at the Raiders’ current home, the Oakland Coliseum, which is notorious for its poor field conditions and was criticized anew following the Raiders’ 24-21 win.


New G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim takes charge of the NBA-owned minor league in the midst of dizzying growth as it heads toward a “30 for 30” single affiliation structure with NBA teams.

Currently, the G League stands at an all-time high of 27 teams, each singly affiliated with an NBA parent team. Over the past three years, the G League has added 10 new teams.

The NBA teams currently without single G League affiliations are the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans, although the Pelicans next year will have an affiliation with a new G League franchise in Birmingham, Ala.

Abdur-Rahim, 42, replaces Malcolm Turner as G League president next month. He played 12 seasons in the NBA and has worked in the league office since 2016, most recently as vice president of basketball operations. Prior to that he worked five years with the Sacramento Kings, serving as an assistant general manager and assistant coach. He also worked as a G League general manager for the former Reno Bighorns (now known as the Stockton Kings). He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley and an MBA from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.

At the G League, the biggest challenge will be maintaining the league’s momentum under Turner. In addition to the league’s rapid expansion and bringing on Gatorade as title partner in 2017, the G League this year introduced select contracts that pay $125,000 for the five-month season specifically for elite players age 18 and over who are not yet eligible for the NBA draft.

“Where we’ve come from with team ownership and rebranding, I think I’m fortunate to come into this job at a really exciting time for the league,” he said. “The cool thing is that I’m coming in from the NBA side. … I wouldn’t say there’s any one particular initiative, but we’ve got a momentum and a relevance now.”

A former college star who left Cal after one year for the NBA, Abdur-Rahim brings a keen player insight to the G League executive suite as it offers young players a different option than college basketball.

“I saw a push from the basketball community for an alternative,” said Abdur-Rahim, who was on many of the NBA working groups that led to initiatives like the select contracts. “We’ll have some young men looking for a different path in life skills, financial literacy, getting acclimated.”

The Pro Fighters League wraps up its inaugural season at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve, with plans to crown champions in six weight classes of MMA, paying out $1 million to each of the winners.

It’s the sort of splash that the PFL hopes will raise awareness, a daunting challenge for a startup in a sport dominated by the UFC, with a well-established second-tier occupied by Bellator and a slew of other competitors maintaining niches around the globe.

The PFL has a deeper war chest than the typical MMA startup, born via the $25 million acquisition and recapitalization of its predecessor, World Series of Fighting, by a trio of well-connected D.C.-area investors — Donn Davis, Mark Leschly and Russ Ramsey — whose antennae went up when the UFC sold for $4 billion in 2017. A $28 million round of equity investment in August added Mark Burnett, Ted Leonsis, Mark Lerner, Tony Robbins, comedian Kevin Hart and others.

Management is headed by CEO Peter Murray, a former NFL and William Morris Endeavor executive, and president Carlos Silva, a former Universal Sports and AOL senior executive. Broadcast production is led by Fox Sports veteran George Greenberg, who oversaw production of UFC and boxing on the network.

Yet even with all that horsepower, PFL has struggled to find an audience in its first year. Live viewership of its 10 shows on NBCSN ranged from 90,000 to 150,000, with West Coast re-airs pushing the number up to an average of about 200,000, according to PFL executives. Ticket sales were microscopic. For its playoff tournament at the 2,864-seat Long Beach Arena in October, the PFL sold 345 tickets at an average of $45 each, according to filings with the California State Athletic Commission. They fared better at their June debut at MSG, where they sold 2,113 tickets at an average of $27.53 each, according to an event audit provided by the PFL.

“When we looked at goals, No. 1 was to launch the brand, and we believe that we achieved that,” said Murray, pointing to ways in which the PFL differs from other MMA circuits. “It’s well-positioned as premium and innovative.”

What distinguishes PFL most is its format that rewards the winner different point totals depending on when the fight ends, from three points in the first round to one in the third.

Next season the PFL is adding a partnership with Durham, N.C.-based SMT, which will develop performance data and analytics for the league, including a Cagenomics product that will track fighters’ heart rate, punch and kick count and speed, power rating and energy exertion for use during telecasts.

“We’re going to bring disruption to the space through innovation,” Murray said. “As a challenger brand, our goal is to reimagine the sport.”