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Volume 23 No. 25
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NFL: ‘Revitalized’ Roger

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has no plans to retire — and that’s just the way the owners want it.
Goodell has made his bosses, like Patriots owner Robert Kraft, very happy while steering the league through a rocky couple of years and back to an upward trajectory.
Photo: ap images
Goodell has made his bosses, like Patriots owner Robert Kraft, very happy while steering the league through a rocky couple of years and back to an upward trajectory.
Photo: ap images
Goodell has made his bosses, like Patriots owner Robert Kraft, very happy while steering the league through a rocky couple of years and back to an upward trajectory.
Photo: ap images

Over the past two years, Roger Goodell’s potential retirement has been a source of frequent discussion among league insiders who thought the NFL commissioner might step down after securing the next players’ union and media contracts. But in the days leading up to Super Bowl LIV, Goodell gave no indication he is eyeing the finish line, and most executives close to the league now expect him to lead the NFL well into this decade.

Interviews with numerous team leaders, league officials and business partners over four days in Miami yielded a broad consensus: Goodell seems “revitalized,” in the words of one club executive, appearing more engaged, happy and comfortable than he did when he signed his last contract extension in December 2017. Few see him as someone who intends to retire in the foreseeable future.

The league is acting that way as well. There is no active succession planning underway and a vanishingly short list of credible successors, sources widely agreed. Crucially, Goodell enjoys the overwhelming support of owners.

Talk of a Goodell retirement peaked about two years ago, shortly after owners agreed to his extension through March 2024. It came amid a precipitous decline in NFL ratings, political problems driven by President Donald Trump and Colin Kaepernick, media criticism over Goodell’s public profile and an insurrection led by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones over Goodell’s compensation. Then-NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said it would be the commissioner’s last deal, though Goodell himself never said that.

Four days before the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers kicked off at Hard Rock Stadium, Goodell stood at a podium at the Hilton Miami Downtown and addressed the issue.

“One thing I learned from this job is that your work is never done,” he said. “I believe there are always challenges that this league will have to address. And I want to put our league in the best possible position. I do believe that leadership is important and that consistent leadership in some fashion is critical for the league. And so, succession will be an important part of it. But I have not thought about retiring.”

Goodell continued: “It is not on my agenda. We have too much to do, and I think too many great things are happening in this league right now. But at some point, I am going to retire. That day is probably closer than it was yesterday. But I am not focused on that. I am 100% committed to this job.”

When talk of Goodell’s retirement hit its peak, it was driven by supposition as much as hard facts. The thinking was that long-term labor and broadcast rights deals — the current iterations of which expire in 2021 and by the end of the ’22 season, respectively — along with new stadiums in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, would create a capstone on Goodell’s tenure and give his replacement a smooth start. But after two years of positive momentum — increased television ratings and progress on each of those fronts chief among them — Goodell looks no closer to stepping down from the job he has held since 2006.

What happens after his contract, a five-year deal worth roughly $30 million annually, runs out in four years is still unclear. A team executive called it “50/50” that Goodell would stay after that, but one key business partner to the league said he’s “never leaving.” Another said: “He likes his work. It’s a great job, he can get anybody in the world on the phone.” Aside from the improving business situation, Goodell’s twin daughters have graduated from high school, possibly giving him the fresh perspective of a new empty nester.

Insiders also deduce that no change at commissioner is forthcoming because of the lack of successors or succession planning. Owners would be particularly loath to choose an external candidate while the league is on an upswing — some would see it as an admission of needing help — and internally, the list is short. Brian Rolapp, executive vice president of NFL Media, is most often described as a potential successor, and has been taking steps to build new relationships with a wider range of team leaders, sources said. Christopher Halpin, executive vice president and chief strategy and growth offer, is also mentioned as a serious candidate, though a step behind Rolapp. In the time before Goodell’s contract expires, those two could better make their case or others could yet emerge.

Simply put, the owners want him to stay, said Sportscorp. Ltd. founder and consultant Marc Ganis, one of the few people not employed by the league with firsthand knowledge of a range of owners’ thoughts.

“The owners don’t want him going anywhere,” Ganis said. “I can’t speak for all of them, but I’ve spoken with quite a few, and Roger Goodell is who they want to be commissioner of the NFL, and who they wanted even when they faced all those headwinds. Now that those problems of the past few years are generally in the past, and the league is firing on all cylinders, that feeling is stronger, not weaker.”