Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 22 No. 23
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Sitting down with the commissioner

Roger Goodell shares his thoughts with SBJ staff writer Ben Fischer
Photo: Patrick E. McCarthy

Now entering his 14th season as the most powerful man in football, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reminisced about his painful but nevertheless fond memories of Super Bowl III, his tumultuous time as commissioner and the league's future in media, social justice and global expansion.

 

What are you hoping to accomplish from a business standpoint with the 100th season celebrations?

GOODELL: It’s not the business of it, it’s the celebration of the game. The great moments, the incredible players and the chance for the fans to sort of relive that. I can go back to when we did the commercial last year for the Super Bowl, it captured that. We were able to celebrate the great players, the great moments in our history and have fun doing that, and remind everybody how much fun this game is, and how much it’s meant to everybody during their lives. That’s what we hope to accomplish.

Do you think in the day-to-day of the playoff chase and the news of the moment, people lose track of the big picture?
GOODELL: No, I don’t think they lose track of it. But when you see that moment where there’s Franco [Harris] reaching for the Immaculate Reception, or talking about Joe Namath, which I think all the time about — I was a Baltimore Colts fan as a kid. So I remember watching [Super Bowl III] with my dad, who represented New York and … it was a bad day for me, in that house, but it brings it all back. I’ll never forget it, and I’ll never forget sharing it with my father, never forget sharing it with my family, never forget what it felt like. Despite the outcome it just helped me be even a bigger fan than I was.

How is your job different from prior commissioners? Is it harder?
GOODELL:
It’s clear that the game is more popular than it was. It’s clear that the expectations of the league are higher because of the leadership position of this place. The complexity of the issues, and the variance of the issues, has probably broadened a little bit. I don’t know that some people could have ever anticipated some of the things based in today’s world.

But let’s not forget when there were those growing pains. I think back to Pete Rozelle. One of the most important things in our history was really when the league, under Pete’s commissionership, actually shared all of our television revenue equally. That was a fundamental change that I think most sports leagues would love to have. I know they would, because they talk about it all the time. It would be pretty hard to do that today. 

Just in your own tenure, how’s the job changed?
GOODELL: It’s evolved. It continues to be a challenge, which I love. … The expectations are high, you know, the different stakeholders you have, from players to coaches to fans to partners. The changing media landscape is one example right now. Things are moving a lot faster than they ever have, so that’s exciting, fun and challenging, but it’s different.

How closely do you pay attention to TV ratings?
GOODELL: It’s more than ratings to us. What we look at is viewership, engagement, demographics. Specific demographics. … If you look over history, there are always ups and downs for any given reason. Particular teams and particular years, weather factors, there are all kinds of issues there. So we always think long term and we think about how we continue to reach the biggest audience and how do we continue to make sure we grow. Also, none of [the ratings] are taking into account how people watch. I think people watch differently than they watched before. In this period when society spends more time on an individual device like a telephone, they still want their social experiences. That’s whether they go to the game, which we think is obviously the best experience, or whether you’re watching in groups. So the out-of-home viewership is a big thing for us because our games are events.

Goodell said the league is looking at viewership, engagement, demographics and how people watch.
Photo: Patrick E. McCarthy

Are you pleased with where the NFL is in meeting the content-consumption demands of Generation Z?
GOODELL: They demand more than other consumers do. They want more of an interactive experience. They want to interact, they’re watching on multiple platforms at one time. Frequently they may be watching on one screen and they’re engaging in another screen — maybe something related, whether it’s a fantasy football league, or it could be something completely unrelated. So I think there’s more of a competition, by a certain definition, for their attention and their focus. But I don’t think that’s any less of an interest in engaging. You just have to give them the opportunity to engage.

So every year we go out to Silicon Valley and other communities — this year we spent a fair amount of time in L.A. — and we talk to those partners and potential partners. And talk about how you’re engaging. Some are taking the business model of saying, “Our content’s in a six-minute format and we’re not going above eight.” We have a lot of content that we will design for that purpose. But we haven’t gotten to a position where we think people aren’t going to watch a three-hour football game. We actually think our job is to make that three hours more entertaining both in the stadium and on other platforms.

Is it plausible that any of the digital-first streaming sites could handle an exclusive package of games in the next round of media rights?
GOODELL: Absolutely. These are really very sophisticated companies, they are making huge investments into video. I firmly believe, and I hear this more consistently, that live sports can make a difference in a lot of those platforms. I do firmly believe that these other platforms are going to be players in future negotiations. And frankly they are in current negotiations. 

What are the new content opportunities created by digital streaming?
GOODELL: We think there’s a lot of opportunity to think about content outside of games. … that’s one of the things that’s been evolving very rapidly besides just the platforms, is the other content that is so valuable.

We talk about the younger demographic, in addition to being harder to reach and more demanding, they want more access. They want to see the inside. One of the things that makes “Hard Knocks” so popular is that inside access. They’re seeing something that they don’t normally get to see, the game behind the game. They’re seeing who the personalities are, who the individuals are, what made those personalities who they are. The great “Keepers of the Flame,” NFL Films, they evolved from the highlight to really showing what’s behind the game. And that’s actually wonderful content for us.

So, just to make sure I understood you earlier, the digital platforms, you believe that they are ready to be the only place to watch an NFL game under a new media rights deal?
GOODELL:
Yes, I absolutely believe they can do it.

Would that work for the NFL?
GOODELL: No, I didn’t say that. What we have to do is make a strategic decision about a lot of things. As I said, reach is still incredibly valuable to us. We want to be on most platforms where we reach the most number of people. But also remember that a lot of those platforms can offer things that a linear television screen can’t do, the interactivity.

Where do things stand with the Sunday Ticket contract and the possibility of leaving the incumbent?
GOODELL: We have a contract with AT&T DirecTV for another four years, three years depending on what we work out this year. 

No opting out?
GOODELL:
No, we always talk to our partners. We talk to our partners about where their business is going; obviously AT&T DirecTV is a different company than when we struck the deal. They have more platforms, they have more assets. The deal we have structured is a satellite-only deal, and so we’ll continue to talk to them about whether that’s made available to a broader audience through other platforms — either through AT&T or otherwise, but those are things that we’ll continue to have discussions about. But I expect to be partners with them for the next several years at least.

Goodell sees the league’s partnership with Roc Nation and Jay-Z as a powerful opportunity.
Photo: Getty images

What would constitute success for you in the Roc Nation partnership?
GOODELL: First, great entertainment. To be able to add entertainment value to our events and our games. Not just the Super Bowl, but to be able to use music and football, which we think are two great entertainment properties, in a way that can bring fans together. To create new forms of entertainment, whether it’s a podcast or whether it’s “songs of the season,” to potentially even giving insights into our players, about music that they like to listen to at different times. And we hope to show how talented and how really unique our players really are.

We also have a really strong commitment to having an impact in our communities, including social justice issues, which our players have been very vocal about. We can continue to make a huge impact, a greater impact than we have today.

What is your reaction to the criticisms of this deal, both directed toward Jay-Z and the league?
GOODELL: We know there are critics out there, but we see a powerful opportunity here and our job is just to go make that happen. That’s what we’re focused on. We’re confident that we can do that and that we’ll make some special things happen for a lot of people.

Is there a case to be made in the social justice category that it’s better to stay out of it? That there’s no winning for the league because you’re always going to get criticized and there’s always going to be a hot-button issue.
GOODELL: No, I don’t think so. We have nearly 3,000 players. Our players are more diverse, they come from different communities, they have different challenges in those communities, they feel strongly about making an impact in those communities, and we know there are challenges there. Many of them were brought to light by our players. … So, we’ve always felt that having an impact with our platform is something that’s important to the NFL.

What needs to change about the league’s international strategy?
GOODELL: Media’s the best way to reach the broadest audience, but you have to combine that with events, you have to combine that with partnerships. The complexity of the world and doing international business has changed pretty quickly, too, as we all know. I think our strategy is right on. As anything, it can always get better. New media opportunities, going particularly direct to consumer, give us opportunities we didn’t have a short while ago in being able to engage them. We haven’t talked much about it, but legalized sports betting is different here in the U.S. now, but not in many markets globally. That’s something that has been sort of standard practice in most of the world, frankly. So how do we look at that, how do we use those opportunities and technologies to be able to reach consumers and do it more dramatically?

[Game Pass] is an opportunity for us, and that’s growing in double digits. So that’s an opportunity for us to go direct to consumers and give them an experience, and include RedZone, too. It’s changed the opportunities for fans to be able to experience our sport, so I think that’s what’s changing so quickly. How do we use that to advance our growth?

Goodell said it’s important for the league to be active in community initiatives.
Photo: Patrick E. McCarthy

It seems like there’s a lot of demand still to meet in the U.K., or Mexico. Is the pace of growth and locations of these events OK with you? What about Germany, or China, or a full season overseas?
GOODELL: The reality is that the demand for playing those games is greater than we have in the inventory. We don’t have the supply to be able to do that, the number of games. But what we’re trying to do is — it’s a combination of the media, the events themselves, and our partnerships. And so when you do that well, you get explosive growth, and I think the U.K. and Mexico are great examples of that.

We started in the U.K. not long ago. Now we see other leagues are doing an awful lot of it and that’s great. The people involved said, “People want to see the real thing.” What we saw was an explosive growth. When we started we were the 10th most popular sport; I think we are No. 3 or No. 4 in the U.K. [today]. In 40 days I’m going to go over and open a new stadium that is actually designed to be the home of American football, or at least transition to that. That’s pretty cool. We couldn’t have imagined that. 

Why not try to get a franchise there, or play a full season?
GOODELL: Listen, I have no doubt that the fan base and the commercial opportunity is there. When we look at the international expansion it’s not just one market, we’re talking about how do we reach the broadest number of people on a global basis. Specifically on having a franchise internationally, can we do it competitively? Can we do it where our 32 teams can compete at a competitive level? And that’s critical. At the end of the day our game is our product.

How are your player safety initiatives going, both in terms of actual improvements and perception — the pipeline issues and parents not letting their children play?
GOODELL:
If you look at the figures on kids playing football, the numbers are actually going up. Youth sports in general are being challenged to a large extent by specialization. [Fewer] kids are playing multiple sports. I played three sports throughout high school, and not many kids do that anymore. That affects numbers. But it’s about also growing alternative forms of football, seven-on-seven, it’s flag football, it’s tackle football.

The league shares its safety data, such as the performance of helmets, with all levels of football.
Photo: Getty images

Going back to your core safety question, we’ve proven we can make the game safer and better. That’s been a big part of our effort, whether it’s improving equipment — the quality of our helmets. In large part by the model that we’ve created, and investments that we’ve made in research and the data we have, have actually improved our helmets dramatically. We’re now prohibiting certain helmets from being on the field because they don’t meet certain standards, which have been raised.

And that makes our players safer on all levels of football, because we share that data. They use the same technology to create helmets at the youth level. Same with other protective equipment and fields. We do the same with rules; we’ve had 50-plus rule changes in the last 10 years which have all just been specifically on safety. Outside of rules you have protocols, whether it’s concussion protocols or other protocols. Our players get the best medical care, they deserve the best medical care and we’re continuing to advance that. … We have, on the club level, incredible medical technology and expertise and assets. So, we have demonstrated that and it’s showing real results. To the point, concussions were down 30%. 

You think you’re getting that progress across to the public?
GOODELL: Yes, and I think the numbers are showing that.

On the future of player safety:
GOODELL: So we can take that same application that has reduced concussions dramatically, to say, “How can we now reduce soft tissue injuries in the lower body?” which are still the largest number of injuries. Because there’s also a business side to that. 

Lost player time, right? The more you can keep your stars in the game, the better.
GOODELL: I can give you another example of that, too. Some people say we protect quarterbacks too much, but in my view they’re unprotected. … When he’s looking downfield, he can’t see anyone coming. So they’re generally unprotected. So we said you can’t hit low, to try to find ways to allow the quarterback to play the game. That has really been a marked change in getting quarterbacks to stay healthy and be able to perform, which allows our offenses to be more productive.

On the culture of safety:
GOODELL: My point is, the game is being played differently, but it’s being coached differently, which is even more important. It’s one thing to play differently, but you usually don’t play differently unless you’re coached differently. And the culture has changed in the NFL, which is probably the biggest thing you should take away. I believe the culture is much different than it was. 

Editor’s note: Edited for brevity.

Like what you’re reading? Click HERE to get more NFL100 content throughout the season.