Tarnish On The Shield

The NFL has taken many ferocious hits recently, some self-inflicted. While the NFL remains a mega marketing, entertainment and profit machine, it’s also fair to question whether they are pillaging their own golden goose, and whether the tarnish that’s collecting on the NFL shield could lead it to a period of lesser prosperity in the future.

The sky is not falling however. To be clear, on every economic dimension the NFL is in stellar shape. Team valuations are increasing with the average NFL franchise now worth $1.4+ Billion. In addition, broadcast revenues are increasing and the move to Thursday broadcasts on CBS this fall has already led to the domination of viewing on that night.

But one can question whether the exponential growth of the past is an indicator of even greater future success. On that dimension I see problems ahead on several fronts for some well publicized issues and others more subtle:

1. Spousal/partner/child abuse

This issue has obviously gotten tons of press recently. Abuse is a societal problem, not merely an NFL problem. But the question is whether the extraordinarily violent nature of the game has desensitized some its “gladiators” into one man wrecking crews in their home and personal lives. There are many extraordinary leaders among NFL players, but for some of even its highest profile players, they lack an “off” button that allows them to re-enter real life off the field.

The NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, have been miserable at articulating policy, adhering to it and teams are all over the place on how to handle issues. Lack of consistency is a real problem and has given the NFL a well deserved black eye.

2. Concussion issues and brain injury

This is a snowball rolling downhill and the NFL throwing (modest) money at former players won’t stop it. The NFL has now has stated that it expects nearly 1/3 of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems. Furthermore, it has stated that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.

This confirms what scientists have long said: playing football increases the risk of developing neurological conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, which unfortunately can only be definitely identified in an autopsy. Are we prepared to see our former gladiators appearing as punch drunk boxers in later life? (if they live that long)

3. Fewer kids playing football

This is a biggee. Ultimately if you play a sport, its likely you remain interested in it. But the problem is that fewer kids are now playing football, and moms are one of the reasons why. Moms read the headlines about concussions and brain injury, and see the stories about former players dying, and moms influence the sports their children participate in.

According to a recent report, the number of individuals between ages 6 and 18 playing organized football has fallen by 5.4% since 2008, according to a Wall Street Journal report on a survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Physical Activity Council.

Fewers participants yields a weaker connection.

4. Oversaturation

Mark Cuban, NBA’s Dallas Mavericks owner, never at a loss for words, said, “I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion. I’m just telling you, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting hoggy. Just watch. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way.” He was referring to the expansion of the NFL telecasts to CBS on Thursday this fall. Though a bit dramatic in his comments, I agree directionally that the NFL has no edit button in its zeal for domination and as a result, may ultimately wound its own golden goose with oversaturation.

So what does this all mean? For the moment, the interest in football, its ratings, and franchise values have never been higher. The question is… will it last? The future may not be as bright. Time will tell.

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