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Imagining Football in a Non-NFL World

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Where Did the NFL Go?There is precedent for a league eating itself alive and reenvisioning itself, just not in America. In 1992, the 22 teams in the first division of the English Football League left to create a new competition, primarily to take larger chunks of a more lucrative television deal. Within years, the new organization they formed — the Premier League — became the most prominent domestic sporting competition in the world.

Like the Premier League, the NFL derives a massive portion of its annual revenue from television companies (including ESPN, which owns this website and employs me). The league generates $7 billion in media rights fees each year, which forms the vast majority of its $9 billion to $10 billion of annual revenue. If you were looking for a reason why the NFL might not be here in 30 years, you would start there. Any drop in that revenue stream would seriously affect team profitability and render the league’s current financial structure untenable.

It’s hard to imagine there won’t be a television network interested in airing NFL games, given how consistently high those games’ ratings tend to be, but we’re already in a sports television rights bubble that is the result of several factors specific to the television landscape of 2014. That includes sports’ status as one of the few DVR-proof pieces of television programming, the unavailability of à la carte cable options, and the slow shift from watching things provided by a broadcast or cable network on a television to watching content available through a streaming service on your phone or computer. Andy Greenwald often notes in his pieces how the television landscape of today is different from that of the past; indeed, the highest-rated sitcom on television, The Big Bang Theory, had its ratings fall between a 9.3 and an 11.8 last year. The highest-rated sitcom 20 years ago, Seinfeld, posted a slightly higher average rating: 20.4. The world has changed.

The likely changes in the television landscape mean the NFL might be presented and distributed in very different ways in 2024 or 2034, which may make the product less profitable and contribute to dramatic changes in the league’s structure or style. I don’t think sponsors would suddenly abandon the NFL en masse without being replaced — only one relatively modest sponsor (Radisson) of one team pulled out as a result of the Adrian Peterson crisis, while major league sponsor Anheuser-Busch just delivered a public warning — but if the advertiser-driven model of delivering television collapsed, it could put the league on a dangerous path. A shifting playing field might also make it easier for a lean challenger to rise and take on the NFL, if it could do a better job of anticipating and exploiting that changing curve.

Another logical path would see the league sued into oblivion by its ex-players. The NFL’s landmark concussion settlement from August of last year has already been renegotiated, with the cap on overall damage claims eliminated for fears that the league wouldn’t be able to pay all claims. That class-action lawsuit includes only a small subset of the players who might have suffered traumatic and/or permanent injuries during their time in the NFL. There will surely be more lawsuits in the years to come.

How bad do you have to be that an alcohol company is telling you to check yourself?

Jon Stewart calls it Beer Pressure. :)

Ha - excellent point!

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