Roundtable: Examining future of NFL, from rule changes to expansion
Ever wonder about the future of football? As do we. So six of Sports Illustrated's finest football minds—senior writers Greg Bishop, Michael Rosenberg and Jenny Vrentas, staff writer Emily Kaplan, deputy managing editor Jon Wertheim and SI.com special project editor Ben Eagle—got together to talk about what the sport and the league will look like in 50 years. The topics ranged from possible rule and gameplay changes to (intergalactic?) expansion, and everything in between. As with all predictions, there were disagreements. But the consensus was: Come time for Super Bowl 100 in the year 2066, football will likely bear little resemblance to the sport we now know.
SI: Let’s start with this: Who will be playing football in 2066?
Jon Wertheim: No question the demographics are going to shift. I don’t see size and body type reversing. But no question the pool of players will change.
Think of it like boxing. The sport still exists. But the athletes come from a much more narrow band of the population than they did a half century ago. Families will undertake a risk/reward analysis. For some, the rewards will outweigh the risk. For increasingly more, they won’t. … Essentially this is a meta-game between the financial rewards (which grow each season, incentivizing) and health factors (which also grow each season, dis-incentivizing).
Michael Rosenberg: I think Roger Goodell just read “Think of it like boxing” and vomited.
The NFL can’t afford to be marginalized in any way, the way boxing is. And while the league is clearly in no danger of that now, I think part of Goodell’s challenge is to make sure the NFL remains wildly popular (and profitable) while it becomes safer. The league has to find that sweet spot: How can it remain beloved while also becoming safer? I don’t think the public is quite as addicted to the violence as people think—the most popular players are the guys who never hit anybody (quarterbacks). But through some combination of safer equipment and rules changes, the game has to become safer, if not actually SAFE.
Emily Kaplan: I tend to agree with Jon here in that the demographics won’t resemble what they look like today. Just as the league eyes international expansion, scouts will broaden their scope. I think we are not far off from seeing the NFL tapping into South America, Asia, Africa and—OK, every continent—for talent. In 2066, more countries will begin playing football, perhaps coinciding with a decline in participation among American youth. That said, with a broader range of athletes to choose from, I don’t see NFL teams settling for athletes that are slower or slimmer.
Look for new entries in the Super Bowl 100 series, presented by Gatorade and Microsoft Surface, at SI.com/SB100 and Wired.com/SB100
Chapter 1, Oct. 7 TRAINING
Chapter 2, Oct. 28 EQUIPMENT
Chapter 3, Nov. 18 STADIUMS
Chapter 4, Dec. 9 CONCUSSIONS
Chapter 5, Dec. 16 MEDIA
Chapter 6, Dec. 30 VR
Chapter 7, Jan. 6 NFL IN SOCIETY
Chapter 8, Jan. 13 TRACKING
Chapter 9, Jan. 20 STRATEGY
Chapter 10, Jan. 27 SB 100
Ben Eagle: If you’re a top athlete in 2066, why would you play football? Basketball and soccer are considerably safer sports and, at present, more lucrative (a trend certain to continue as each sport gains a larger international and domestic foothold). LeBron James played wide receiver for two years in high school and then hung up the cleats for good. Expect this to be commonplace among the athletic elite in 50 years (if not sooner).
Greg Bishop: I think some of this comes down to how soon they can get a test for CTE for the living. Then, the question is: Would players take that test? Would they want to know if they had brain damage? If they did know, would they retire? The more information they have, the more I think some of them (most?) will stop playing. So that will narrow the demographic pool for sure. It’ll be like heavyweights in boxing in particular. They’re still big. They’re just usually not that skilled.
Jenny Vrentas: I think the physical attributes of football players 50 years down the line depend on how the game evolves in the name of player safety. Rule changes may de-emphasize attributes like being able to plow through other players. In an extreme case, we’d see the game morph into a 7-on-7 format that emphasizes skill and speed, and would account for declining participation numbers. But I don’t think we’ll see a change that extreme in the next 50 years.
SI: Seems like everyone is in agreement that there will be some, possibly drastic changes to the sport in an attempt to make it safer in the next 50 years. Any predictions on what those changes could be? Will the actual gameplay look the same?
Bishop: 50 years? I think you’ll see a ton of changes. Football will more resemble, as Jenny predicted, what we now call 7-on-7 drills than the game Lombardi coached. The emphasis will be on statistics—and legalized betting on football—and that will be driven by a game that’s basically one team passing and the other team trying to defend passes. You’ll also see equipment upgrades, particularly with helmets, and you’ll see kids waiting to play tackle football until a later age, as mandated by law.
Rosenberg: I think it has to start with the helmets. You want to protect the egg, start with the shell.
Kaplan: In 2066 we could have helmet-less football. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are already testing the effectiveness of helmet-less tackling techniques, and I think their findings could make landmark changes to the game. At the very least, we’ll see teams adopt more rugby-style tackling approaches.
Wertheim: There is a huge incentive for innovative technology. The rewards coming to whomever devises the equivalent of the airbag will be monstrous. Others made the same point, but, yes, it starts with the helmet. Reducing or eliminating kickoffs or limiting running plays may or may not reduce head injuries. A lot of this will come down to economics, liability and risk management. I spoke recently to an insurance executive who worries that football programs—Pop Warner and high school, but even some D-I program—simply won’t be able to cover insurance premiums.
Vrentas: A few things I’ve heard discussed: Eliminating the three-point stance, and instead having linemen squatting at the line of scrimmage, to stop the constant clashing of helmets in the trenches and reduce sub-concussive hits. Getting rid of kickoffs. Penalizing any player who lowers his head before making contact, regardless of if they are offensive or defensive or where they are on the field. Something once talked about was field expansion, with the idea that a bigger field would spread out the game and reduce big collisions—but I could see that going either way, with players also possibly having more time to wind up, as happens on kickoffs. There’s also the extreme measure, as Greg also referred to, of changing the game entirely to something like 7-on-7.
Eagle: Field expansion seems like the most impactful—and realistic—change. The width would tilt the game in favor of faster players who can operate in space while deemphasizing the brutal play between the tackles. While Jenny makes a good point about wind-up time, I think these hits would be few and far between considering how spread out defenses would be on a wider field. It’s an idea that could make the game safer and more exciting to watch.
Rosenberg: It occurs to me that 50 years is, like, a LONG TIME. Who knows what air travel will be like? Or medicine? Think of where we are now compared to 1965. Back then, we hadn’t even put a man on the moon. By 2066 we could have an expansion team there.
SI: Mike brings up a good aside here: Expansion teams. Are we going to London? Mexico? The moon … ?
Kaplan: London, Mexico, Brazil … but still, somehow, no Los Angeles.
Bishop: The NFL will expand wherever it can, as soon as possible. I haven’t met one player, or executive, though, who seems in favor of it, who’d want to play in London for a season. So that will slow the train a little bit. That said, the NFL will have a team in London in our lifetime and probably elsewhere, which will only make expense accounting that much more difficult.
Wertheim: In the early ‘90s, the NBA swore up and down that there would be a team in Europe by decade’s end. Then they learned more about the complications—time zones, jetlag, currency issues, revenue splits, players unwilling to live abroad. (Note how many NBA players resisted Vancouver, a Hall of Fame city an hour from the U.S. border.) Because of the weekly games, the NFL is well-positioned. Already, of course, there are NFL games in London and owners (Shahid Khan, Stan Kroenke, etc.) with sports properties overseas. It’s an obvious step—what does any brand do when it wants to grow beyond the domestic market?—but let’s take care of L.A. first.
Vrentas: Let’s not rule out the fact that in 50 years, air travel could be exponentially faster than it is now. It may not take six hours to fly from New York to London. Maybe it only takes three. The NFL is pushing for expansion for a simple business reason: There is a ceiling on how much any business can grow domestically, and they want to tap into an international market. We will certainly continue to see an expanded international presence, with the league now also reaching tentacles into Mexico and Germany, for example. The logistical hurdles to having an international football league will not be the same in 50 years as they are now. But a big determinant of how far the NFL can expand is whether or not the game maintains its popularity among the next generation of parents and kids amid the heightened awareness of health and safety concerns. Nothing has burst the bubble, to this point.
Rosenberg: I think, with overseas expansion, there are two sides of this wall … the revenue side and the production side. The NFL obviously thinks the revenue streams of being overseas are impressive, and I have no reason to doubt them. But as far as producing a team … how do you sign free agents to live over there? How does a team spend eight weeks on another continent, and travel in the playoffs? Right now it’s not realistic. But by 2066, it could happen, and Emily will be the only one of us alive to see it.
Kaplan: Piggy-backing off Michael here, I do think there are significant logistical issues to hash out, beginning with the most basic: personnel. How do you add players mid-season? How do you snatch a guy on the waivers on Monday, approve his Visa by Wednesday, have him practicing by Friday and suiting up on Sunday? The only way this would work is if the international teams have a home base in the states.
Rosenberg: I think the NFL could solve the visa problem by buying England and giving it to the United States. Give me one reason this can’t happen.
SI: We can’t rule that out. Goodell could pull it off. On that note, will Goodell still be in charge? Will he freeze himself so he can continue to run the NFL forever?
But really, what will the job of commissioner look like? Will the powers of the office continue to grow? Will the players’ union push back and diminish the powers of the office?
Wertheim: As a hypothetical shareholder in the NFL, have you realized value under the leadership? If the answer is yes, you’re probably in no great rush to undertake an executive shake-up. For all the PR blunders and slings and arrows he takes (which is part of the job description), as long as franchise values and TV deals and pretty much all financial indication arrows point upward, it’s hard to talk seriously about a replacement for Goodell. What does the office look like in 50 years? A lot of that depends on how collective bargaining goes. A lot depends on the media landscape.
Bishop: I think the sentiment against Goodell has never been stronger. But I agree with Jon that what really matters is how much money he stuffs into the owners’ pockets, how big their valuations grow. That train doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon. I do think, though, that he’ll lose some of his absolute power. I think you’ll see a change in the discipline system, for instance, with an independent committee or person to handle appeals. Stuff like that.
Eagle: How does the commissioner not lose power? Just look at Deflategate and Judge Richard Berman ruling that Goodell acted beyond his scope of power in upholding Tom Brady’s suspension. While Berman’s decision is still being appealed, the issues with the current consolidation of power are pretty clear. The NFL commissioner (whomever it may be in 2066) can still run a very profitable business while deferring to a neutral committee on issues of appeals and such.
Vrentas: The goodwill Goodell built up from making the owners a lot of money did start to erode within the last year over the mishandling of the off-the-field crises and Deflategate. But the NFL rode out the storm and hasn’t been any worse for the wear.
Rosenberg: Goodell is very good at increasing revenue. But it’s also worth noting that A) nobody likes being embarrassed, but rich people REALLY don’t like being embarrassed, and B) Roger Goodell is not the only person alive who can help the NFL grow revenue. He’s not selling canned worms in ketchup. He has a very popular product. So if he keeps having public missteps, at some point owners will say enough is enough … especially the owners who bought into the league most recently, because they paid a premium for their teams.
Bishop: I vote Rosenberg for commissioner. He’s already wildly popular in New England.
SI: Let’s go back to the play on the field for a second—I want predictions on weird, little changes we may see. What ya got?
Wertheim: Simply for the anachronistic value, I want to keep first-down chains and the coin toss. All these questions are interrelated. Changes and innovations in media, technology, safety, etc. will be brought to bear. Official challenges will be resolved more quickly in the future. How’s that for a bold prediction? And more pylon cams. Those are great.
Rosenberg: The coin flip is a great question. We’ve got iPads on the sidelines, coaches talking to quarterbacks in the huddle wirelessly, and yet we still stick with the coin. Also, those first-down chains are ridiculous, especially since everybody knows in New England the chain is just nine-and-a-half yards long. I’M KIDDING, NEW ENGLAND. RELAX.
Bishop: Instead of a coin flip, there should be a designated Wonderlic test at midfield. Each team can pick the other team’s test taker. Also, players will be able to see those yellow lines from TV on the field, through holograms. The position of fullback will no longer exist. And reporters will be banned from the stadium, unless they work for Derek Jeter or the team.
Kaplan: First off—no more referees. Humans in pinstripe costumes blowing whistles to call subjective penalties on 300 men clashing their bodies against each other? They are going to be obsolete. Master of Officiating Dean Blandino (he will still be in office, but now have that glorious title) will oversee all decisions from a swanky jet plane he flies across the world every Sunday, randomly hovering over stadiums as he sees fit. He will have an army of officials—maybe they can hang on the jet with him, but they’ll probably watch from the press box, or maybe New York—monitoring games on broadcast and making the calls from there.
Rosenberg: I’m really curious about the pace of the game. There is such a clear strategic advantage to speeding it up, and one could argue that makes for a more entertaining product … but the two biggest issues facing the game right now are probably player safety and officiating, and speeding the game up is a detriment to both. Officials need time to get calls right, and everybody needs to be able to check on players between plays. I think the obvious answer is to do whatever is most profitable.
Vrentas: I’d assume fans will be watching games from a perspective as if they were on the field, via helmet cams, or some tricked-out Google Glass-type thing, or virtual reality. I can see a trend toward smaller stadiums, or games played in non-traditional venues like city plazas. Concussions will be diagnosed on the sideline with the speed and reliability of a rapid strep test. And there will be no judgment calls if a player made a first down or crossed the goal line—there will be technology for that.
Eagle: By 2066 we’ll have perfected cloning and utilized it to ensure every game features a monkey riding a dog at halftime.
SI: So we have been operating under the assumption that football will still be around in 50 years. Anyone want to argue the other side of this? Will there ever be a time that the sport ceases to exist and, if so, what will be the ultimate downfall?
Bishop: One thing I wonder about is: What happens when it’s not just a handful of retired players dying, or committing suicide? What happens when it’s hundreds of guys, and it’s happening every day, all the time? Will that turn off sponsors? Or people who watch football? I think it will have an impact that we don’t see coming yet.
Kaplan: Liability suits stemming from deaths or long-term health impairment could weaken the NFL’s power or—more plausibly—our culture’s appetite for it. But I can’t see the sport being marginalized to the point where people simply don’t play. The sport itself is too ingrained in our culture to wash out completely. That said, from a financial standpoint, I’ve always found this stat fascinating: Of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955, only 16 still existed in 2014—in other words, 88 percent went bankrupt, merged, or simply aren’t as powerful 59 years later. So just because the NFL is so financially flush now doesn’t mean its power won’t eventually be diminished—in fact, history tells it likely will be.
Rosenberg: To Greg’s point … I do think the game is safer now than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Far from safe, obviously. But I think thousands of retired players have suffered, and I don’t necessarily buy that this generation of players will suffer more. What could change the conversation is if one of today’s biggest stars becomes the face of the problem. If, in two years, one of the league’s premier quarterbacks is unable to function like a normal adult, that might change how people view the game. And a cynic would say that the league has protected quarterbacks precisely so this won’t happen. But don’t accuse me of being a cynic! I’m a walking Disney movie, guys.
Vrentas: What will be critical in the next 50 years is how much we are able to define the risk of the game. Millions upon millions of dollars are being invested in this, to get clear, hard facts on things like the incidence rate of degenerative neurological diseases among football players vs. the general population; risk factors, such as a gene that is believed to be connected to recovery from brain injury; and is there a threshold for the intensity and number of collisions that lead to long-term effects? Right now, there are no concrete answers to these questions. This kind of research takes years, decades even, but being able to provide these kinds of answers will allow the next generation to fully understand the risk and make more informed decisions about what role football plays in their lives.
Wertheim: To truck in the morbid here, a fatality on the field during a game could—and would—have dire consequences. But the demand for football is so astronomically high—and the economics are so favorable—that, for all the hand-wringing and talks of this existential crisis, it’s hard to see the sport ceasing to exist. I go back to boxing: I could see the NFL dwindling and young athletes, unwilling take the health risks, choose other sports.
Eagle: I think any sport would struggle to recover from an on-field death. But I too will return to boxing. Athletes have died in the ring and yet the sport continues to march on. While football’s popularity could diminish over time, it isn’t going anywhere.
Rosenberg: I have not seen a single sign that football is going to disappear. I suppose if Americans lose their fascination with gambling, sports, video, violence, cheerleaders and arguing with each other, it could happen. But I’m quite sure that when I die, people will skip the funeral to watch football. The sport is here to stay.
Wertheim: Mike beat me to my joke: I hope I do not die on a Sunday.