February’s Super Bowl LI was hailed an instant classic, but the National Football League (NFL) and its 32 franchises barely had time to reflect on the New England Patriots’ unlikeliest of comeback victories over the Atlanta Falcons in Houston before plans were being made for the coming campaign.
Franchise relocations, new media rights deals, sponsorship renewals, yet another stadium opening, disciplinary controversies, a messy union dispute, the richest shoe deal ever signed by a pro football player - this off-season has been a typically busy one for gridiron’s elite.
Ahead of this week's big kick-off, SportsPro considers some of the top off-field talking points permeating North America’s most popular sport.
The fight for LA
This year sees the return of the Chargers franchise to Los Angeles, where they played their inaugural 1960 season before moving south to San Diego the following year. The Chargers’ relocation was confirmed by team owner Dean Spanos in January, almost a year to the day after the now-LA Rams controversially upped sticks and headed west from St Louis.
Like the Rams, who were hardly welcomed back to California with open arms, the Chargers are hoping to win over the notoriously competitive Los Angeles market - an effort they've dubbed the 'Fight for LA’.
To that end, they’ve been going all out to garner affection, plastering billboards all over the city, releasing player-fronted promo videos and even offering Angelenos free tattoos depicting the team's lightning bolt emblem.
The Chargers’ return to LA was swiftly followed by new local TV and radio rights agreements, and they began pre-season play at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center in August. The stadium is by far the smallest venue hosting NFL football this year, but the home of the LA Galaxy soccer team will be the Chargers’ base only until they join the Rams at their extravagant yet already delayed palace in Inglewood in 2020.
Raiders and the lost art
Around the time that news broke of the Chargers’ decision to leave San Diego, the Oakland Raiders - still the self-proclaimed ‘number one team in LA’ given their historic ties to the city - submitted a formal request to relocate to Las Vegas, a long-mooted move that was officially ratified by league owners in March.
The Vegas-bound Raiders now face three lame duck seasons in Oakland - they will continue to play at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum this season and in 2018. And even though they have an option to extend for a further year, it is likely they’ll be forced to find a temporary home for 2019 ahead of their long-awaited move to a US$1.7 billion stadium slated to open near Vegas’ famous Strip ahead of the 2020 season.
The reason? Fans and public officials in Oakland have made it known that the Raiders, whose loyalty to their home city was understandably questioned throughout the lengthy relocation process, are no longer welcome there. Indeed, the Raiders' situation in their current hometown has grown increasingly uncomfortable.
Like their counterparts in St Louis and San Diego, residents of Oakland have been left frustrated by the NFL's decision to jump ship for an untapped market and the promise of a flashy new stadium. In the end, however, an unprecedented US$750 million handout from Sin City taxpayers was too good to pass up, not least for Raiders owner Mark Davis.
“The state of Nevada gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Davis said recently. “We had to do what was best for the franchise.”
This season sees the debut of yet another new NFL venue, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which opened its doors in late August. The US$1.6 billion, ultra high-tech home of the Falcons is the 16th new NFL venue to open since the turn of the century, and is set to be followed in short order by the aforementioned developments in LA and Las Vegas.
It is anticipated that the Falcons’ move from the Georgia Dome to Mercedes-Benz Stadium will boost the NFL’s overall revenues once again, just as the opening of the Minnesota Vikings’ US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis - host of next February’s Super Bowl LII - did in 2016.
The league expects to generate in excess of US$14 billion in 2017, over US$900 million more than last year, fuelled in part by infrastructure upgrades, new media deals and incremental gains in existing broadcast contracts.
That will all come as music to the ears of the NFL’s teams, who last year received US$244 million apiece from a total of US$7.8 billion in shared revenue, which includes licensing and merchandise sales as well as national TV deals. A significant uplift tied to Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium should see that figure, as well as the league’s current salary cap of US$167 million per team, rise once more.
In broadcasting terms, the biggest storyline heading into the new season is the impending arrival of Amazon as an NFL media partner. The global e-commerce giant made headlines back in April when it penned a US$50 million deal for streaming rights to the league’s ten-game Thursday Night Football (TNF) package - an agreement that saw a five-fold increase on the amount Twitter paid for the same package last year.
In its first major foray into live sports streaming, Amazon was understood to have beaten rival bids from Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube to land the coveted TNF rights. It will offer the games live to its Amazon Prime subscribers globally, and it’ll reportedly charge advertisers up to US$2.8 million for commercial spots alongside the action.
The nature of Amazon’s NFL debut is sure to be thoroughly scrutinised, not least by a global sports industry that remains in the dark when it comes to the company’s broader sports strategy. For the NFL, meanwhile, Amazon’s TNF streams offer another chance to trial content distribution via an untried and untested yet financially flush and increasingly influential digital partner.
Speaking at Cannes Lions in June, Patriots owner Robert Kraft (above) described Amazon-style over-the-top (OTT) deals as “the future” of the NFL’s media output. “We’ll be very interested to see how Amazon goes as it’s behind the paywall,” he said. “The thing we have to be careful of is millennials. They don’t watch TV, they don’t have TVs or subscribe to cable. So we have to bring that audience in. Partly it’s done through fantasy games and linking to that. Over-the-top is a great opportunity.”
With the NFL preparing to renegotiate its lucrative broadcast contracts with Fox, ESPN, CBS, NBC and DirecTV ahead of their expiry in 2022, league executives will be monitoring Amazon’s audience numbers and demographics closely, particularly given it will be on them to calculate how to extract greatest value from their rights and optimise their content across all platforms during the next wave of media deals.
Pass and move
If Amazon’s arrival is a sign of things to come in NFL broadcasting, the new season also heralds the beginning of a new chapter for NFL Game Pass, the league’s over-the-top (OTT) streaming service that provides live and on-demand coverage of every pre-, regular and post-season game as well as NFL RedZone.
In June, the NFL enlisted longstanding partner Bruin Sports Capital and advertising behemoth WPP to help drive expansion of the service in Europe. Bruin and WPP have drawn on their respective resources and specialist agency subsidiaries to form OverTier, a new London-based company led by former Bauer Media Group executive Sam Jones, whose primary task is to turbo-charge the growth of Game Pass whilst enabling the league to better engage and understand its fanbase in 61 markets across the Atlantic.
In Canada, too, the NFL’s direct-to-consumer digital offering has a new home for this season in the shape of DAZN, the so-called ‘Netflix of sports’ that launched in the market in August with exclusive rights to Game Pass.
That particular deal was facilitated by a shift in the NFL’s broader rights strategy in Canada, where Bell Media became the league’s exclusive TV broadcaster in June, and was essentially bundled within a broader partnership with Perform Group, the London-based owners of DAZN who will market live NFL game rights in several territories from this year, in addition to distributing Game Pass to over 100 countries outside the United States and Europe.
Big game players
The NFL is, of course, a media juggernaut, a 'go big or go home' property at the sharp end of an outsized sports industry in a mega-market where those who shout loudest more often than not prevail.
Fitting, then, that the league will launch its first-ever esports tournament this season, and not just any old esports tournament. This will be an unprecedented, massive, landmark-laden video game venture the NFL PR machine proudly trumpets as the “largest competitive gaming commitment ever by a US professional sports league.”
Unlike the NBA’s 2K eLeague, which will feature a comparatively paltry 17 out of 30 teams, the Madden NFL Club Championship will boast representatives of all 32 of the NFL’s franchises. Most importantly, it is the league’s first major push into esports, and if all goes to plan it surely will not be its last.
Roger Goodell succeeded Paul Tagliabue as commissioner of the NFL in September of 2006, having first joined the league as an intern back in 1982. His tenure has been eventful, to say the least.
To the league’s owners, Goodell is a safe pair of hands, a weatherproofed executive who has steered the NFL through troubled waters to newfound riches and unprecedented popularity. Under him, the NFL’s franchises have more than doubled in value, while the league’s annual revenue has nearly tripled. To the owners, Goodell's US$30 million-plus annual compensation package is worth every penny.
To others, however, the 58-year-old Goodell is merely a puppet for the NFL’s billionaire elite, a weak leader whose tenure has been a tale of mismanagement and reputation-damaging controversies such as last year’s ‘Deflategate’ scandal and, more recently, this summer’s six-game suspension of Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott over domestic violence allegations.
But whatever one’s stance on Goodell and his approach, his record on paper speaks for itself, and it should be enough to keep him in the role for some time yet. Despite lingering concerns surrounding his leadership, recent reports say the NFL is close to finalising a five-year extension to Goodell’s contract, a deal that would run until 2024 and therefore encompass the league’s next round of collective bargaining negotiations in 2020.
Retaining Goodell, whose current contract is due to expire next year, should provide the stability the NFL needs heading into what are shaping up to be tricky talks with the league’s players’ union. If he can keep the league on the path towards his personal target of US$25 billion in annual revenue by 2027, all those multi-million dollar bonuses will surely have been worth it.
State of the union
Relations between the NFL and its players’ union, the NFLPA, have been fraught for as long as anyone can remember, but recent weeks have seen their relationship sour even further.
The latest dispute between the pair came to a head in August, when both sides traded public blows following the NFL’s controversial decision to suspend the aforementioned Elliott on disciplinary grounds. First, the NFL accused the NFLPA of "spreading derogatory information” about Tiffany Thompson, Elliott’s accuser, prompting the union to respond with an emphatic statement in which it rubbished the league’s accusation as “a lie”.
With the dispute raging on and Elliott’s appeal process ongoing, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith (left) has said “the likelihood of either a strike or a lockout is almost a virtual certainty” when the league's current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which is generally deemed to have heavily favoured the owners, expires in 2021.
NFLPA president Eric Winston has since echoed Smith’s comments, saying that players would have few qualms if a repeat of the 2011 work stoppage were to have long-term ramifications for pro football. “If this thing dies out in 20 years, it dies out in 20 years,” said Winston, a veteran offensive tackle. “That's not really my concern, and I don't think it's any of these players' concern in here either.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Watson, 33, now finds himself a free agent having been released by the Cincinnati Bengals last week.
Meanwhile, with all signs pointing to another messy NFL vs NFLPA showdown, it remains to be seen who will be in the union’s top job when formal discussions over a new CBA get underway. Cyrus Mehri, a civil rights attorney, plans to challenge Smith for the position of executive director, but a mooted change to the procedure for electing the union head could yet see the incumbent, whose contract expires in March 2018, reappointed unchallenged this October.
Besides the league's ongoing union dispute, it is fair to say there are a few headaches blighting the NFL as the build-up to the new season continues. Chief among them is the issue of concussions.
In July, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of 111 brains of deceased NFL players tested, 110 showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative disease that has been linked with dementia, depression and other symptoms. The report provided yet more evidence of the dangers associated with playing football, sparking renewed fears among players and parents and leading some US media outlets to ask whether its findings might be the death knell for the sport.
NFL bosses acknowledged a link between football and CTE last year, and almost four years after agreeing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to retired players who claim to have been misled about the dangers of concussions, the league has begun making payouts of up to US$5 million per claimant. To date, more than 18,400 out of around 21,000 retired players have registered as part of the class-action settlement, suggesting the NFL’s overall bill could end up running some way over the original US$1 billion estimation.
A further problem for the league remains the issue of players refusing to stand for the American national anthem. During pre-season, several players sat throughout renditions of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner', reigniting a controversy that made headlines throughout last season when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (above) elected to kneel in protest against racial injustice.
Some pointed to Kaepernick’s social activism last season as a contributing factor in a decline in TV ratings throughout the opening weeks of action - although it should be said that the distraction of the rancorous events leading up to the election of US president Donald Trump in November was also deemed to have had an adverse effect on NFL audience numbers.
As pre-season got underway last month, Kaepernick remained an unsigned free agent, unable to find a new employer having opted out of his 49ers contract in March. Team owners appear reluctant to sign him, seemingly perturbed by likely blowback from fans and the unwanted attention of a growing protest movement for which Kaepernick has become the most prominent footballing symbol.