NFL commissioner Roger Goodell laughs a little when asked if the multi-billion-dollar empire he oversees has seen anything like the turbulence that has rocked the league in recent months.
Goodell was a 23-year-old intern in 1982 when the league was deep in a period of tumult.
An owner was engaged in a nasty lawsuit against the league. The upstart USFL hoped to knock the NFL off its perch. In Goodell’s first week on the job, the players began a strike that shortened the season.
“You know why I’m laughing?” he asks. Because, he says, the league has been here before.
Heading into next week’s NFL annual meeting, which begins Sunday in Orlando, today’s list of problems—declining ratings, national-anthem protests, feuding owners, questions about the game’s safety—is even more dire, raising questions about the very future of the NFL.
Yet amid growing public doubts, something astonishing has happened: The NFL is having a banner off-season.
The NFL has rattled off a string of lucrative deals over the last several months that fly in the face of these concerns. Fox paid $3.3 billion for the oft-maligned Thursday Night Football package—a 47% increase over the current deal. Verizon’s new mobile deal with the league jumped from $250 million annually to more than $450 million. An uncomfortable imbroglio with sponsor Papa John’s led to a breakup—and, a day later, an even more lucrative deal with Pizza Hut.
“The stability of our league has never been stronger and firmer,” Goodell said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal at NFL headquarters in New York. “That doesn’t mean we’re not realistic about the challenges. We have them.”
During these negotiations, the league’s partners have had questions for Goodell. “We’ve sat at this table,” he says. “They believe in the strength of the league.”
This is a key feature of the Goodell era in the NFL: his ability to rake in ever more money for the owners despite mounting problems. The recent deals give Goodell some good news to bring into an owners meeting that will otherwise be subsumed with ongoing challenges.
The league has been unable to quell the anthem protests by players after two seasons. TV ratings have declined for two years amid growing data the league is losing its core audience. The dust hasn’t settled from a multi-front spat between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that resulted in Jones being ordered to cover $2 million in legal fees the league incurred.
All of these headwinds developed under Goodell’s watch. But so did the media deals that have only further enriched the league. And that’s why owners say, in spite of these worries, they insisted on a recent contract extension for Goodell.
“This was one more reason, the economic and business aspect, why I felt with Roger, we needed him to stay on,” said Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who leads the league’s business ventures committee.
While Goodell is signed through the 2023 season, the faces around him are changing. Some of the most important executives in the league office have departed since the season ended, including COO Tod Leiweke, chief spokesman
and CMO Dawn Hudson.
The ultimate test of whether Goodell and the owners have successfully navigated the current storm is a few years off. The league’s broadcast and cable deals, the cash cows that rake in about $5 billion every season, don’t expire until 2021.
The recent spate of strong second-tier deals provides some hope that the league can still sustain its long run of growth. Media executives, for example, said the ratings declines were in part owing to overexposure—a direct jab at Thursday Night Football.
Yet when the bidding for the Thursday package came around, Goodell says, every network was interested. Fox swooped in and poached the property from NBC and CBS, which shared the package last year.
The situation was even dicier when it came to pizza. Papa John’s founder
criticized the league in an earnings call, saying the NFL hurt the company and had to resolve the national anthem protests. Papa John’s walked back Schnatter’s comments, but after the season, the league and the company parted ways. A day after that was announced, Pizza Hut paid more money over a longer period of time to become the league’s official pizza partner.
“We turned a negative situation into a positive,” said Patriots owner
One looming issue going forward involves gambling. By the time the 2018 season begins, a Supreme Court ruling could pave the way for legal sports betting across the country—something the NFL has historically opposed even as the NBA and MLB expressed more public interest in trying to get a cut of the action.
Goodell declined to discuss specifically what the league would do if sports betting is legalized. One owner, speaking anonymously, suggested the league will have to seek some sort of deal: “Why would we let other people have all the benefit of something we’re creating?” And despite its public stance, the league has shown signs of a change in position. The Oakland Raiders, after all, are readying to move to Las Vegas.
“We have to be prepared for any alternative,” Goodell said.
The thorniest topic on the table remains the national anthem protests, which some players began in 2016 to call attention to social issues and racial inequality, and continued through the end of the 2017 season. Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who catalyzed the movement, remains unsigned amid a grievance with the league that alleges he was effectively blackballed for his outspoken political views.
During the last season, NFL owners declined to make a rule change that would require that players stand during the national anthem. But it could be revisited this offseason. One potential solution: allowing players to remain in the locker room during the anthem if they choose, but requiring to stand if they are on the field. A potential rule change will not be voted on at the Orlando meetings, a person familiar with the matter said. But that doesn’t rule out that it could happen at the next meeting in May.
For the league that for so long tried to avoid political issues, the protests changed everything. Goodell says the goal is still an apolitical game, but says “it’s particularly hard in a divisive society.”
Goodell declined to say if he believed the rule should or would be changed this offseason. “Right now, we’re not focused on that,” he said. He wanted to change the subject. “Don’t you have anything else you want to talk about?”
Write to Andrew Beaton at firstname.lastname@example.org