I left this year’s Super Bowl feeling positive about the NFL.
■ The league has a compelling narrative around its forthcoming 100th season.
■ Super Bowl host city Atlanta was extremely gracious and successful.
■ The community and social activism of both the players and the league is admirable.
■ Some insiders actually believe the next round of labor negotiations could be much more amicable than first thought.
■ A new CBA would lead into the next round of media talks, which are poised to bring the league huge increases.
■ And while many are understandably tired of them, the New England Patriots offer a fascinating story of sustained greatness.
In addition to these feel-good stories, I continue to focus on the current and future leadership of the NFL, starting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Goodell’s public profile and PR strategy remains an issue. If there was one topic that dominated Super Bowl week among team executives and league partners, it was the way Goodell responded to the controversial aftermath of the NFC Championship game. Most of the people I spoke with felt the messaging from the league office on the officiating was too reactive and late. People wanted to see Goodell publicly address the controversy immediately and not let the issue dominate conversations before Super Bowl LIII.
For years, Goodell’s playbook as the public face of the league was to take criticism and the tough questions for ownership. But this season, the league shifted its communications strategy and lowered Goodell’s public profile. The shift seemed to work. The league bounced back on several levels this year, Goodell had fewer reasons to address the media, and many believed that helped avoid any public missteps.
The problem is that this strategy rubs both ways. Unfortunately, Goodell was not in top form during his annual address in Atlanta, coming across as stiff and scripted as I can remember. His performance showed someone out of practice with taking questions in public. I’m sure some owners were fine with this, especially given that the questions were dominated by on-field issues rather than the off-the-field domestic violence and health concerns that have dogged the league for years.
After 12 years as commissioner, Goodell’s public persona still surprises me. He excels in certain settings. I’ve watched videos of Goodell surprising fans at bars with unannounced visits, where he pays for meals and shows an easygoing personality that endears people to him. The morning of Super Bowl Sunday, I watched him walk along Peachtree Street in Atlanta with a small group, going unnoticed before greeting a fan who acknowledged him with an easy smile and pat on the back. Compare that relaxed Roger Goodell with the one from his media avails. I hear the negative reaction toward him and it reinforces the vast disconnect he has with NFL fans that unfortunately seems irreparable.
Goodell’s contract is scheduled to go through the 2023 season. He has acknowledged that this will be his last deal, with his focus on a new CBA and media deals. But there is no clear succession plan at the NFL, one not nearly as defined as the successful passing of the torch from David Stern to Adam Silver or Bud Selig to Rob Manfred.
The biggest question is if owners look inward or go outside 345 Park Ave. If it’s inside, one person comes up in every conversation I have: chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp, who is well-regarded for his deep intellect, presence and speaking ability. Rolapp has significant support among ownership but he’s also known as a tough negotiator, which has likely ruffled some feathers. Other internal names mentioned are Chief Operating Officer Maryann Turcke, who is relatively new but getting good marks, and Chris Halpin, who is lauded for his skills as chief strategy and growth officer. Any internal candidate will need to display a delicate balance between showing interest in the job without actively campaigning for it.
The outside name I’ve heard more than once, in all seriousness, is Condoleezza Rice. She knows football and how to manage outsized egos and she would bring needed diversity to the top level of sports. But she’s a risk for owners, who could face major repercussions if they resist her. Another name worth considering could be longtime NFL executive and our Champion profiled in this issue, Kevin Warren. Finally, some expect owners to look to Silicon Valley, and there is a school of thought the job should be split, with a top executive focused on a long-term strategic vision and a CEO who runs the business.
The NFL had a nice year. But these are complicated and difficult decisions that the league will face in the future.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.