Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Is image everything to the National Football League?

Anyone who would suggest it wasn’t a terrible off-season for the Lords of the Pigskin the “Demigod’s” who manage the affairs of the most powerful economic engine in professional sports today – the Roman Empire of sports. The Roman Empire fell when Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire was deposed by Odoacer. It’s a pretty safe bet Michael Vick won’t bring down the National Football League but historically Empires have fallen when those minding the store (those entrusted with managing the house) have lost control of the empire they where in charge of.

When it comes to TV appeal, fan popularity, team value and other benchmarks, the NFL's power has never been greater according to a recent USA Today report:

Television: The NFL annually ranks as the most-watched programming in sports and entertainment. In February, Super Bowl XLI generated a 42.6 TV rating and an estimated 139.8 million viewers watched some portion of the broadcast, according to Nielsen Media Research. The AFC and NFC championship games in January grabbed bigger ratings than the premiere that month of American Idol, Fox's entertainment juggernaut, as well as the Academy Awards, Emmy Awards, Grammy Awards and Golden Globes.

"There's nothing with as much pop as NFL football," says Fred Nance, one of five finalists for the commissioner's job last year.

Popularity: Pro football has ranked as America's most popular sport in the Harris Poll since 1965. In January, the polling firm found that more than twice as many fans (29%) named the NFL their favorite as the No. 2 sport, Major League Baseball (14%). College football was the USA's third most popular sport (13%).

Professor Raymond Sauer, chairman of Clemson University's economic department, says every pro sports league in the world tries to copy the NFL. He says the league has managed to suppress competition and routinely has gotten public financing to help build stadiums.

Attendance: The league set an attendance record of 18.1 million in 2006. Regular-season attendance rose for the fourth season in a row to a record 67,738 a game.

"I'd like to be in a business where I knew that I had a lot of protection from competition and it's guaranteed profits," says Patrick Rishe, associate professor of economics at Webster University.

Value of franchises: As a group, the NFL's 32 franchises are the most valuable in U.S. sports, says Mike Ozanian, senior editor at Forbes. The average value of NFL teams was $898 million in 2006, more than twice the $431 million average of Major League Baseball teams.
But is that enough to stem the tidal wave National Football League has been forced to deal with in what was a tumultuous off-season? When Roger Goodell arrived at the NFL’s Park Avenue offices on Tuesday April 10, 2007, Goodell likely was greeted with the front page of the USA Today’s sports section at the NFL’s New York offices. The entire front page of the USA Today’s sports section that day was filled with the head and shoulder pictures (resembling mug shots) of the more than 50 NFL players who were arrested last year. The timing couldn’t have been better, that same afternoon Goodell sent a message to NFL players – deviant behavior is unacceptable in society and will no longer be tolerated if athletes want to play in the National Football League.

The modifications of how the NFL will deal with “NFL players acting badly” including focusing on expanded educational and support programs in addition to increased levels of discipline for violations of the policy, Commissioner Roger Goodell said.

"It is important that the NFL be represented consistently by outstanding people as well as great football players, coaches, and staff," Commissioner Goodell said. "We hold ourselves to higher standards of responsible conduct because of what it means to be part of the National Football League. We have long had policies and programs designed to encourage responsible behavior, and this policy is a further step in ensuring that everyone who is part of the NFL meets that standard. We will continue to review the policy and modify it as warranted."

Added NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw: "The NFL Players Association and the Player Advisory Council have been discussing this issue for several months. We believe that these are steps that the commissioner needs to take and we support the policy. It is important that players in violation of the policy will have the opportunity and the support to change their conduct and earn their way back."

In the five months since Goodell with the support of Gene Upshaw has included the suspensions of Michael Vick, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson – four football players whose on-field abilities suggested they were good enough to play on Sunday’s but lost that right when their off-field antics forced the NFL to suspend them.

"I can tell you what I talk about to the players to a large extent, which is the fact that we're in the NFL and it's a privilege, whether you are commissioner, player, coach or in the public-relations department," Goodell told the New York Daily News. "You've got a responsibility to the NFL and to the people who came before us and the people who come behind us, to make sure we're held to a higher standard. The players have a strong view and interest in keeping the game strong."

Pacman has been involved in 11 different altercations with the police and as his lawyers will tell anyone who cares to listen – Pacman has yet to be convicted of a crime. Chris Henry has been arrested four times. Tank Johnson's jail time on gun possession charges have sullied NFL's reputation. And Michael Vick deserves a whole new category when it comes the NFL Conduct Code. It’s a pretty safe bet Roger Goodell couldn’t have imagined an NFL player would have done what Michael Vick stands convicted of, let alone one of the league’s perceived leaders and more marketable players.

"This may be contrarian, but at the level it is at today, there has not been much negative impact, certainly not much long-term negative impact," said Marc Ganis, the president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm that does a lot of business with the league. "The perception is the NFL is being proactive and actually dealing with societal problems that are impossible to deal with and taking stronger action than even law enforcement."

"This is a tragedy in terms of a public-relations thing with Vick, but people understand this is an isolated thing," one general manager told the New York Daily News.

That remains to be seen but when Michael Vick has paid his ‘debt to society’ Roger Goodell is going to be forced to reinstate Vick – regardless of his personal feelings. Any other decision will open the National Football League to litigation from civil liberties groups.

"He has pleaded guilty. Once the season starts, this will be a side story," one GM said. "The only thing that can come from this story is more people are implicated. That is your worst nightmare."

"These guys make a lot of money," one GM said. "Money will bring out the flaws in people. It magnifies them. That is what you are seeing."

It never ceases to amaze when someone is afforded the right to offer their comments on the condition of anonymity how ‘candid’ they can be. Nonetheless as another ‘unnamed’ general manager told The New York Daily News – its time the NFL paid closer attention to the ‘men’ teams are drafting – not only the football players they’re selecting.

"Anybody who gets caught now, you have to check their mental aptitude," another GM said. "It's like the ones who get caught failing the drug test at the combine. If any player was involved in dogfighting, you can't erase what has already been done, but they better hope nobody squeals on them or has pictures. I've not heard anyone come forward and say they've been to a dogfight or bet on a dogfight."

And is the NFL Teflon proof? In a word yes, with television contracts that annually generates more than $3.75 billion a year, and with the NFL expected to top $7 billion this year – there indeed may be nothing or no one player who could destroy the marketing and business machine known as the National Football League.

"The NFL has so much built-up marketing power and so much built-up fan interest," Ganis said. "You will not see a reduction in ticket sales. You are not even going to see a major reduction in television ratings. The first place you are going to see it is a reduction is in merchandise sales, in the discretionary money fans spend on sports. We know there has been a big reduction in Michael Vick sales. They've taken the product off the market. Now let's see how big a drop there is in Atlanta Falcons merchandise."

But that's only one team. "If we get to the point where there are multiple Michael Vick cases impacting teams at the same time, then we will see a fairly meaningful drop in merchandise sales, in sponsor interest and Internet traffic," Ganis said. "Those things deal directly with fan passion towards the sport."

Those comments aside – the NFL is a great deal more than Michael Vick, Adam Pacman Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson. They may be the face of Goodell’s NFL Player Conduct Code but there is much more to the NFL than the actions of four players.

Through NFL Films and NFL Properties, the league as The St. Petersburg Times pointed out in a recent report reached out to a mass audience and created a mythology by lifting the facemask off marquee players and offbeat personalities.

Through it all, network television fueled the NFL's surge to the summit.

“I was a rookie in 1976 and the Reds had just won back-to-back World Series titles,” said Reggie Williams, the former Cincinnati linebacker who is now vice president of Disney Sports Attractions in a St. Petersburg Times report. “The Bengals were considered second-class citizens back then and I feel proud to be part of a franchise and league that captured the public imagination.

“NFL Films told the story of the game, the romance beyond the blood and guts. And coming out of the Vietnam War, this country needed something to put it back together. Pro football provided the catharsis because it's all about the team.”

“Instant replay slowed the game down enough so that fans could see beyond the brutality,' said Williams, who played 14 seasons. “You have 22 players engaged in live theater, unscripted. Now, I'm looking forward to cameras in helmets, sensors in footballs and your TV set rumbling while the play is in progress.”

Last year the NFL sold out the first twelve weeks of their regular season schedule and it appeared the NFL was capable of running the table – selling out their entire 2006 schedule. Two NFL teams (Minnesota and Jacksonville) needed extensions to meet the league’s blackout restrictions and the St. Louis Rams where selling tickets after they had announced their home opener against the Carolina Panthers would be televised. Will week two sellout, and if the NFL’s 2007 sellout streak ends after one week will it be a sign of the times or nothing more than an aberration?

“In baseball, when the first pitch hits the glove, 10 to 15 teams are eliminated,” Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay told the St. Petersburg Times.” At the end of two weeks, people are writing that it's all over. With our free-agency system and our inverted draft, our sport has been able to avoid that.”

“How do you ensure you stay at the top - you keep labor peace, you keep selling out your games to avoid blackout issues and you keep your game on broadcast TV,” McKay said. “Yes, we're all trying to drive revenue, but we've always got to be mindful of access. If you don't pay attention to access, you can create a problem.”

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The New York Daily News and The St. Petersburg Times

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