1. Our reign may be in danger.
Baseball may be the national pastime, but it s no secret football is America s No. 1 sport. Last year 31 percent of sports fans chose football as their favorite sport, up from 24 percent in 1994, according to pollsters Harris Interactive. In fact, half the 20 highest-rated TV broadcasts of all time are Super Bowls, according to Nielsen. And with roughly $8 billion a year drawn from TV contracts, ticket sales and licensing, the NFL is the biggest moneymaker of all U.S. pro sports leagues, says Rodney Fort, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan.
But there are changes looming. The current agreement determining how NFL revenue gets divided among players and owners expires after the 2010 season, with no new deal on the horizon. Andrew Brandt, president of football news site National Football Post, says that without a new agreement, rich teams could hoard all the best players, and there could be more disparity between the haves and have-nots the kind of gap that many analysts think has hurt the popularity of major-league baseball and pro basketball. The NFL says it s resolved to do its best to achieve a fair agreement in time for the 2011 season.
2. No helmet is ever safe enough.
American football got started in 1876, but wearing a helmet wasn t required for another 67 years. And even then, it was little more than a leather headpiece. By contrast, today s state-of-the art helmet is designed to reduce impact more pressing on the heels of a recent NFL-commissioned study by the University of Michigan s Institute for Social Research, which found an alarming link between football players and dementia. According to the study, former NFL players between the ages of 30 and 49 are 19 times more likely than nonplayers to develop memory-related diseases like Alzheimer s.
There have, indeed, been great advances in helmet design, says Joe Maroon, team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, noting today s helmets have improved shock absorption by 10 to 30 percent. But he says there s more to be done to combat concussion and long-term head injury. The NFL agrees and in December stepped up by imposing new and stricter guidelines on when a player can return after a head injury. Teams are also now required to have independent doctors assist in diagnosing head injuries.
3. We re not always good at taking care of our own.
Wayne Hawkins is no stranger to putting his body on the line for the team. Having missed only four games in his 10-year career with the Oakland Raiders during the 1960s, Hawkins has paid a price for his on-the-field sacrifices, which included returning to play one week after being knocked into a coma for 12 hours. Today, at age 71, he suffers from dementia as well as knee and shoulder problems. Hawkins receives a monthly pension payment from the NFL, says his wife, Sharon, in the amount of $201.36. If that sounds low, it s because many retired players of past eras haven t benefited from the same pension and high salaries players receive today.
Things are changing. Since 1998 players have received an additional five years of health insurance after stopping play; for injuries lingering beyond that, they can apply for line-of-duty disability, says an NFL Players Association spokesperson. In the past three years the league has also doubled the minimum benefit for retirees, to $40,000 a year. Fans who want to make a donation toward the medical costs for retired players can do so through charitable organizations like the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.
4. You re not getting your money s worth from our new stadiums.
With the construction of the Dallas Cowboys new $1 billion stadium, the ante has officially been raised when it comes to state-of-the-art facilities. The stadium, which NBC compared to the Roman Coliseum, was funded in part by $325 million in public money. But some experts argue using public money typically in the form of increased taxes on sales, car rentals and hotel stays to build these new stadiums doesn t actually do the
public any favors. While teams argue new stadiums bring economic activity or growth, independent research suggests this isn t the case, says Fort.
Meanwhile, the league is pushing teams to build new stadiums, even telling the Miami Dolphins upgrades are needed if it wants to host another Super Bowl after this year. For the NFL, new stadiums bring more money into the whole system, says Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, since ticket prices go up and revenue from ticket sales gets shared equally among the 32 teams. An NFL spokesperson says the league encourages new stadiums so fans are provided with the best experience possible.
5. We have a gambling problem.
Since Congress passed the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, it has been illegal to gamble on sports in most states, with just a few exceptions like Nevada, which already had a state law on the books legalizing sports gambling. About $1 billion gets wagered on pro football in Nevada a year, and seeing the tax revenue that state was generating from sports betting, Delaware, also exempt from the 1992 act for having gambling laws on its books, became the latest state to allow betting on NFL games this past fall. Through the first half of the football season, the state was averaging $61,000 a week in additional revenue. Now other states like New Jersey are looking at ways to offer sports betting.
The NFL s official stance is that gambling could compromise the integrity of the sport it fears a bookmaker getting someone to throw a game, but that s a very old-fashioned way of looking at it, says David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV, who notes there haven t been any gambling-related pro football scandals. An NFL spokesperson says the league is unapologetic about protecting the integrity of the sport.
6. Are you ready for some commercials?
For six months of the season, the 32 NFL franchises fight, scrape and claw until there are only two teams left standing in early February, ready to suit up one last time for the chance to be Super Bowl champions. It s what the whole season boils down to and it s the biggest TV draw of the year. No wonder advertisers consider it their Super Bowl as well and cram the broadcast full of their best commercials. Last year s big game had 45 minutes and 10 seconds of ad time, or nearly 45 seconds of commercials for every minute of game time.
That s an increase of about 13 percent from 2005. In fact, the past five Super Bowls have been the five most commercial-heavy broadcasts in the game s history, and experts don t see the trend reversing. Ad times tend to go up in sports, and it s not going to go down, says Jon Swallen, SVP of research at TNS Media Intelligence, an advertising research firm. Swallen says during the Super Bowl, there are essentially two games going on: the one on the field and the one the advertisers are playing to capture viewers attention. It s become as much about the commercials as it is about the game, he says.
7. If you don t come to the games, we won t show them on TV.
Since the recession, fewer fans have been going to pro sports events. Through the first 11 weeks of the 2009 season, NFL attendance was down slightly, by 2 percent, on pace to be the second year in a row it has dropped. Worse, a full 13 games failed to sell out in the same period, meaning those living within 75 miles of the host stadium couldn t watch them on local TV, thanks to the NFL s blackout rule. In fact, two-thirds of the way through the 2009 season, there were already more blackouts than in any of the past four seasons. Fans of losing teams suffer the most, says Adam Schefter, an NFL expert at ESPN: If a team s winning, they re going to sell out. But with a poor economy, bad teams struggle to sell tickets.
Overall, the season s TV ratings are still huge, says a league spokesperson. An average of more than 17 million viewers have been watching each game, the most in more than 20 years. But the popularity of football broadcasts could be adding to attendance woes, says Schefter and increasing the number of blackouts. The NFL s done such a great job with the different TV options that some people would rather stay home and watch on high-definition, he says.
8. You won t believe what we charge for season tickets.
For fans in New York, Baltimore and Dallas, some season tickets come at a steep price and we re not just talking about the cost of the tickets per se. For premium seats, fans not only have to pay for the tickets themselves, which can run between $250 and $700 a pop in 10-game packages, but they also have to pay for the right to buy the tickets, in the form of a personal seat license, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars for more coveted season-ticket spots. That s where fans are really getting ripped off, says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts.
Personal seat licenses, which generally range from $1,000 for an upper-deck seat at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., to $150,000 for the ritziest seats at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, are a onetime fee for which fans can also make payments over several years with interest, of course.
9. Fantasy football is the new reality.
Watching Monday Night Football this past September, Keith Goddard cheered on Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.
But Goddard s no Cowboys fan he was rooting for the Tulsa Oryx, his fantasy football team that includes Witten on the roster. Using a mishmash of players from across the NFL, fantasy footballers draft their team, and as the real players rack up yards and touchdowns, the fantasy team likewise accumulates points. President of investment-management firm Capital Advisors, Goddard is one of an estimated 28 million fantasy football players, up 40 percent since 2007, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.
Fantasy football really took off in 2004, says Matthew Berry, a fantasy-sports analyst at ESPN. That s when the NFL got behind it in a big way, he says, by dedicating ads and TV time to it. No surprise the pros are gung-ho fantasy football draws viewers into games they wouldn t care about otherwise and gives people who aren t even NFL fans a reason to tune in, says Berry. Bottom line: Fantasy football leads to real-world profit for the NFL.
10. It s just a business to us.
While fans live and die by each play of their favorite team, owners can sometimes have a much different view. At the end of the day, it s still a business, says Zimbalist. And that means making some decisions based more on the bottom line than on what s good for the team. Case in point: the NFL draft, says National Football Post s Brandt. The process is designed to help the worst teams even the playing field by giving them first crack at the future stars from the college ranks. But as rookie contracts continue to swell for example, Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jake Long, selected first overall in the 2008 draft, signed a contract making him the highest paid lineman in the NFL before ever playing a single game some teams are opting for lesser draft picks as a means of balancing the risk and reward of selecting unproven players. That might not make much sense in terms of getting the best players, but it does when you look at the financial implications, says Brandt.
Depending on the next collective bargaining agreement, the threat of no salary cap in future seasons could fuel the trend, says Brandt. NFL teams could start swapping high-salary players for cheaper ones, on par with Major League Baseball and the NBA, he adds. An NFL spokesperson downplayed such concerns, saying it s impossible to compare economic models from sport to sport. e