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New TV deals, Sunday Ticket on YouTube, and Josh Harris in Washington: The 2023 NFL season off-field talking points

Ahead of this week’s NFL kickoff, SportsPro breaks down some of the major storylines underpinning the business of American football going into the 2023 season.

1 September 2023 Sam Carp

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Nothing captures the attention of American sports fans quite like the National Football League (NFL).

Despite only occupying the final third of the calendar year, the NFL accounted for 82 of the 100 most-watched broadcasts in the US in 2022, up from 75 in 2021.

The NFL starts the 2023 season with its most important commercial deals locked in for the next decade and safe in the knowledge that it has tens of billions of dollars secured in committed revenue.

But with new broadcast contracts kicking in, a change of ownership at one of its franchises and various other developments for the league’s front office to contend with, there’s no shortage of things to discuss.

As the Kansas City Chiefs and Detroit Lions wait to get the 2023 season underway, SportsPro picks out some of the key off-field storylines heading into the new campaign.

New media rights deals bring more money and more streaming

The NFL stole the show in 2021 when it announced long-term domestic broadcast agreements with CBS, ESPN/ABC, Fox, NBC and Amazon, which are cumulatively paying more than US$100 billion to broadcast the league until 2033.

While last year saw Amazon make its debut as the exclusive broadcaster of Thursday Night Football (TNF), this season is the first to fall under the league’s new contract with the majority of its domestic media partners.

The main changes? More money and more options for fans to watch.

All five of the NFL’s main broadcasters are paying significantly more than they were under their previous deals, which together were worth US$5.9 billion a year. The new contracts are said to be worth a total of US$113 billion over 11 years, which amounts to around an 80 per cent increase.

Financials aside, perhaps the biggest difference fans will notice is the increase in digital distribution. Amazon now holds the NFL’s first-ever streaming-only package, while the other four broadcasters have incorporated their main digital destinations into the new agreement, which includes exclusive games on ESPN+ and NBCUniversal’s Peacock from this season.

That’s before even mentioning NFL+, the league’s own streaming platform launched last year, which offers live coverage of local and primetime regular season and postseason games on mobile devices. This year, it is also adding the popular RedZone ‘whiparound’ show to a new premium tier.

Another major change in 2023 will see Amazon air the NFL’s first ‘Black Friday’ game for free, a strategy designed to drive viewers to the company’s ecommerce platform around one of the busiest dates in the shopping calendar.

How will the Commanders fare under new ownership?

July was a month of celebration for fans of the Washington Commanders, who saw their team officially sold to a group led by perennial sports team investor Josh Harris for US$6.05 billion.

The deal ended the unpopular ownership tenure of Dan Snyder, whose more than 20 years at the helm came to be associated with declining interest as the team failed to deliver on the field. His decision to sell the franchise he bought for US$800 million in 1999 came amid allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic workplace culture.

Shortly after the sale, the NFL published the findings of its own investigation which revealed that Snyder had been fined US$60 million over his interpersonal and financial misconduct.

It’s unclear whether fans of the Commanders, who last year propped up the NFL for attendance, will immediately flock back to FedEx Field, but the early signs are positive. Some 3,000 supporters turned up for the franchise’s first public training camp in July and it’s worth remembering that the Commanders are a big market team who were regularly at the top end of the attendance charts before fans became disillusioned during Snyder’s tenure.

Josh Harris is the new owner of the Washington Commanders

Brands also appear optimistic about the team’s direction under Harris, who has said he wants to “change the culture” at the Commanders and has a track record of turning around struggling franchises through his ownership of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils. Verizon was the first sponsor secured under new ownership and that deal was followed by the return of Anheuser-Busch InBev and a new partnership with 50 Cent’s liquor brand Sire Spirits.

Still, the sum Harris paid for the Commanders was a reminder of just how expensive it is to buy an NFL franchise – only four teams have sold in the last decade. To that end, club owners have reportedly been pushing the league to tweak its rules to allow private equity firms and institutional investors to buy team stakes. Commissioner Roger Goodell also said in July that the NFL would “contemplate” investment from sovereign wealth funds, but stressed that the league prefers its current private ownership model.

Flexibility and interactivity at the heart of YouTube’s Sunday Ticket debut

Another sign of the NFL embracing streaming came towards the end of last year when Google fended off competition from the likes of Apple to secure the league’s Sunday Ticket package for a reported US$2 billion a year. The deal, which is said to run for seven years, will see out-of-market games air exclusively in the US on YouTube TV and YouTube Primetime Channels from the start of this season.

That marks a significant shift from the NFL’s previous partnership for Sunday Ticket with AT&T, which distributed the coverage via its satellite television service DirecTV.

To help ease the transition, Google is offering customers more flexible packages which will allow viewers to spread the cost of a subscription over several months, while eligible college students will benefit from a discounted rate.

Interactivity will also be a focal point of YouTube’s coverage, which will allow those tuning in on smart TVs to watch several games at once through a multi-view feature. Live chats and polls will also be incorporated into the live feed to drive engagement during games, while Google is also working on ecommerce integrations that will allow viewers to access items from the NFL shop.

Either way, what’s clear is that Google is doing its utmost to improve the affordability and appeal of a product that was a loss leader for DirecTV.

Where next overseas after the success of the league’s German debut?

The NFL made its long-awaited debut in Germany in 2022 after more than a decade of staging regular season European games exclusively in London. The league said it could have shifted three million tickets for the sold-out match in Munich, which saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Seattle Seahawks. Seats for this year’s pair of games at Frankfurt’s Deutsche Bank Park were reportedly snapped up within minutes.

The response speaks to just how popular the NFL is becoming overseas, which might explain why DAZN was willing to spend a reported US$1 billion to secure a ten-year deal to distribute the league’s Game Pass International service worldwide.

There remains no firm commitment to having a permanent NFL franchise – or a division – outside of the US, but where the league goes next could well be informed by where it sees the most traction from its home markets programme. The initiative, which grants franchises marketing rights in a specific country outside America, has been expanded this year to include an additional two clubs and a further four markets, taking the totals involved in the programme to 21 and 14, respectively.

Brett Gosper, the NFL’s head of UK and Europe, suggested in November that teams could eventually choose to play a home game in a country where they have marketing rights – like the Jacksonville Jaguars have done annually in the UK. He described it as “a real possibility” but cautioned that such a move is “not imminent”.

Gosper told the AP: “Certainly, in the next six months to 12 months we’ll be really testing the viability of our options from a stadium point of view – not just in Europe but elsewhere – and then at the same time in parallel seeing what the appetite is for clubs to potentially exploit those markets with a game.”

NFL making progress on diversity but work still to do

The NFL’s commitment to diversity was thrown back under the spotlight in March when reporter Jim Trotter revealed that his contract with the league-owned network and website was not being renewed. Some observers speculated that the decision could be related to Trotter’s public questioning of Goodell about the NFL’s progress on diversity, equity and inclusion.

In early 2022, Goodell himself had labelled the results of the NFL’s push for diversity as ‘unacceptable’ amid former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores’ decision to file a lawsuit against the league and three of its teams alleging racist hiring practices.

Last year’s annual NFL Racial and Gender Report Card by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) gave the NFL a B+ for racial hiring, which was consistent with 2021 and 2020. The study acknowledged a slight improvement in gender hiring practices, which went up from a C+ to a B.

There appears to be progress being made in the front office. As of March 2023, the NFL had seven minority team presidents, including five who are Black and three women. However, the story is not the same on the sidelines. According to HR software firm Revelio Labs, the NFL has the biggest disparity between the diversity of its players and that of its coaching staff among major men’s professional leagues. Indeed, Mike Tomlin, Todd Bowles and DeMeco Ryans are the only Black head coaches heading into the 2023 season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mike Tomlin is one of only three Black head coaches in the NFL

It is an issue that will continue to be monitored and one that the league is clearly aware still needs further improvement. The Associated Press (AP) reported earlier this year that each franchise is now required to have someone in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I will acknowledge our representation of diverse head coaches, in particular Black head coaches, is certainly below our expectation and is not where anyone wants it to be or knows it needs to be,” Jonathan Beane, the NFL’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, told the AP in March.

“We have way too much talent out there to have the representation among the head coaches that we have. However, I think it’s really, really important to look at other areas that are CEO-type positions, that are critical positions to the success or failure [of a franchise].”

Does the NFL have a gambling problem?

Like all other North American major leagues, the NFL has started to cash in on gambling since US sports betting restrictions were relaxed in 2018.

The league itself has partnerships with the likes of DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars Entertainment, while team sponsorship revenue from sports betting deals was up 40 per cent last season, according to SponsorUnited, which estimates that more than 25 franchises now have a gambling sponsor. The Commanders even have a sportsbook inside FedEx Field.

But now, the NFL is starting to have difficult conversations that sound all too familiar to those that have been going on in Europe for significantly longer. Those have been sparked by the competition’s crackdown on athletes who violate its gambling policy, which prohibits all league personnel from betting on any NFL game. Players are allowed to place wagers on other sports – as long as they don’t do it while at a team facility or venue.

Three players – Isaiah Rodgers, Rashod Berry and Demetrius Taylor – were suspended for the 2023 season in June for betting on NFL games during the 2022 campaign, while Nicholas Petit-Frere will not feature in the Tennessee Titans’ opening six regular season matchups this year for placing wagers on non-NFL sports at the club facility. It means ten players have been hit with betting-related suspensions since April.

Given that the league has been prepared to give the gambling industry a global advertising platform in return for significant cash, those player punishments have understandably led to accusations of hypocrisy. It could also be argued that teams based in markets where sports betting is legal are at a disadvantage because their athletes have easier access to sportsbooks.

Either way, greater education will be crucial if the NFL is to avoid betting snowballing into a bigger headache than it is already becoming.

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