The Decline And Fall Of The NFL

As a writer, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to compare the NFL with the Roman Empire. All of the talk of coliseums and gladiators, legions and conquest tend to leave normally humble scribes in the throws of hyperbole. And so it is that I, a certified football junky, am left to proclaim the coming fall of professional football as we know it. The NFL has fallen victim to that most American of vices, hubris. The owners and marketers that drive the league are convinced of its immortality in the same way that U.S. automakers were in the 70’s and 80’s, and Major League Baseball owners were in the 50’s and 60’s.

Like any prediction of doom, this prophesy can be avoided by simple actions. The easiest way for any business to put the brakes on catastrophe, is to stop taking its customers for granted and regain a focus on quality. The National Football League has been consumed by its effort to expand its control over the marketing channels and grow its cash flows. This is a critical strategic error that is made often in U.S. businesses; a focus on the prompt delivery of sound products to an industry’s customers is always the best way to grow cash flows. The NFL is focused on finding ways to force its customers into the purchasing habits that enrich its owners the fastest. Greed is not, as Gordon Gecko might believe, good.

Only a delusional belief that the American market can’t live without the NFL can support the actions taken regularly by this enterprise. Despite the league’s fantastic appeal, we Americans are remarkable in our ability to find new heroes and distractions when the old ones are no longer convenient. Major League Baseball was ruthlessly pushed out of the center of American life by football and cable television; to believe that the NFL could avoid a similar fate at the hands of the Internet and a plethora of other activities is to believe in fairy tales. Millions of working class Americans are replaced by assembly line robots and cheap foreign labor every year, it is no stretch to see their current favorite distraction being replaced by newer, more flexible and less expensive pastimes.

The NFL is stumbling, bumbling, rumbling along three major fronts; competition, business model, and marketing. Let’s break these plays down together:

  1. Competition-Perhaps best exemplified by the instant replay rule in the broad sense, and Sunday’s ridiculous call to end the game between the Lions and the Bears, the NFL has proven woefully unable to adapt technology and common sense in the execution of its game. Rather than just using the immense video replay capability to enhance the fair judgment of the game, the NFL and its myopic television partners feel the need to inject “strategy” into instant replay. But far more than not getting replay correct, the league has proven annually to have the least consistent rules structures in sports. Every year boasts an example of inept rule-making, from the “tuck-rule” to that idiotic non-touchdown in Chicago. Apparently, in a league where a runner can leave his feet to touch the goal-line cone to score a touchdown (and lose the ball in the process), a receiver who clamps the ball vice-like in two hands, puts two feet on the ground, then controls the ball in one hand while landing on his left side, will not get credit for a score. In any system of rules, consistency must be the hallmark…but the NFL is above society’s rules, so why should theirs be consistent?
  2. Business Model-The league operates under an exemption from the anti-trust laws of our nation, but that apparently doesn’t guarantee enough income for the billionaires who own the enterprise. They have spent two decades extorting taxpayer money to fund the only capital structures their business requires (their stadiums), and have, at the same time, had the audacity to consistently jack up prices on tickets, parking, tailgating, merchandise, and food to “pay for” the taxpayer-funded structures. Now, these same “savvy” tycoons are prepared to play chicken with the fans in order to keep from sharing their billions with the players who take the real risks in this business. At a time when the collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union was expiring, the number one item on the owner’s agenda seemed to be pushing through the idea for two more regular season games. Of all the professional sports, football players have the least security and highest risk…a ratio that is enough to bring their problems to a level that many of their working class fans can understand.
  3. Marketing-Billion dollar deals with broadcast networks and ESPN weren’t enough, so the NFL created its own channel. That in itself isn’t a bad idea, but the league then used its own games as leverage to force the network into cable lineups quicker than the norm in that business. As a result, the NFL’s customers were the ones who suffered. Moving Monday Night Football off of the broadcast networks was, again, a move related to short term monetary considerations in opposition to long term business growth. Exclusive deals in merchandise and gaming, the spiteful attempts to control fantasy football, and other moves have pushed many potential customers into other diversions. Finally, the NFL’s decision to allow itself to be used as a lever by satellite TV against cable is the height of stupidity. The league has essentially told its customers who prefer cable over satellite that they aren’t important.

A simple rule in any business is to put customers first when making decisions. This doesn’t mean that enterprise should not push for profit, and it doesn’t mean that the NFL should be free of charge. The league simply needs to get back to being a fan-first, fan-friendly enterprise. The Romans knew that a fall was possible, and they saw fit to warn their leaders of such a possibility at an earlier more sensible time in their history. Returning conquerors were given the honor of a triumph, essentially a ticker tape parade. The conqueror, riding erect in a chariot, was accompanied by a slave holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear, a warning;

All glory is fleeting.”

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