This story appears in the Aug. 8, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Roger Goodell is celebrating a decade at the helm of the NFL this summer, which raises the question: What do you buy the man who wants everything? Predictably, in his 10th year Goodell has received a healthy round of boos from fans at the NFL draft and assorted virtual body blows from the media. From his too-short investigation of Ray Rice to his too-long investigation of Tom Brady, Goodell has exasperated a lot of people who love the NFL.
But in most owners’ suites this fall, he will be toasted. The NFL is a revenue machine that can easily afford any Deflategate-related legal fees. As we try to predict Goodell’s second decade, let’s start with the money.
Goodell wants to make $25 billion a year by 2027. Well, don’t we all? The difference is that a) Goodell said this out loud; and b) he may actually do it. When his goal became public, in 2010, NFL revenue was $8.5 billion. Last year it was $13 billion.
As an NFL fan you may not care about billionaires making billions more. But the big question is not whether Goodell reaches his goal. It’s how he tries to do it—and whether the union lets him.
In the fall of 2012, the NFL Players Association pushed the league to place independent concussion experts on the sideline during games. For months the NFL resisted. A few days before the Super Bowl in ’13, the NFL announced that those experts would be on the sideline starting the next season. The union found that out by reading the news release.
That says something about Goodell’s relationship with the players association—even when he does something they want, he does it on his terms. And if anything, that relationship has only deteriorated in the last three years. Union leaders have publicly chafed at what they see as Goodell’s overreaching on player discipline and his disregard for player safety. Goodell has chafed at the union’s chafing.
Commissioner-union relations are probably more contentious in the NFL now than in any other sport. This would seem to point toward a massive work stoppage when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021—but in fact, it may not. The differing priorities could actually save the NFL from a work stoppage. Theoretically, at least, the owners and players can both get what they want. That is essentially what happened in 2011, when Goodell negotiated a CBA that gives the owners all sorts of fiscal benefits, while NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith secured assorted health benefits (expanded insurance coverage and a reduced off-season program, among other items).
The league is primarily concerned with increasing revenue. The union is concerned with both increasing revenue and improving the quality of life for its players. The league would dispute this characterization, of course—the NFL has made a show of making the game safer. But NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs George Atallah says, “Very little progress in the area of health and safety has been achieved without the union driving the process,” and Goodell has consistently pushed profit-driven initiatives above all else.
The challenge for Goodell now: Create more revenue while satisfying the union’s desire to protect its members. Video rights are the league’s greatest asset, and Goodell has leveraged them in masterly fashion. He held Thursday games out of the last long-term TV negotiations, which gave him a small batch of broadcasts he could use to test his options before the next long-term negotiation. Last year the NFL streamed a game on Yahoo, and this year 10 Thursday games will stream on Twitter. It is easy to imagine a network getting outbid by, say, Netflix in the next TV negotiations—it would be an even more seismic change than what happened in 1993, when upstart Fox blew CBS away to grab the NFC package.
The next video deal will keep the owners’ grandchildren in cashmere diapers for a while. But it may not be enough to get the NFL to Goodell’s $25 billion goal. To do that, the commissioner needs more product. That could mean more weekday games, a longer season, expansion or some combination. And just as his predecessor Paul Tagliabue’s tenure was partly defined by his failure to put a team in Los Angeles, Goodell’s tenure may be defined by his push to get a team into Europe.
You might think the idea of an NFL team in London is rubbish, and there are many logistical hurdles. But Goodell is serious about it, and he has the strong backing of owners like Jacksonville’s Shahid Khan and New England’s Bob Kraft. (Admit it: England vs. New England would be a heck of a rivalry.)
The union would likely balk at putting a team in London, but this is not a simple yes-or-no, Brexit-style vote. There are other issues at play. For example, Goodell has been pushing to expand the schedule from 16 games to 18 for years because it would bring in more money, and there is no risk for the people who can fire him—owners don’t get tackled. But he has never gotten any traction with the union, which is already wary of the toll that the season takes on players. Atallah says bluntly, “As long as De Smith is executive director, and we have a group of player leaders who care about health and safety, expanding the regular season is not going to happen.”
Goodell could drop the 18-game proposal in exchange for the union’s acquiescence on London. And—this is purely hypothetical—he could expand by four teams, including one in London. Four teams is a lot, but the NFL has added only one team since 1996 (the Houston Texans, in 2002). This plan would allow Goodell to add four expansion fees, 32 more games per season and four markets, including a foothold in Europe. The union would get more than 200 new jobs for its members, along with a slice of all that revenue.
Another solution: Make the regular season 17 games, with eight at home, eight domestic road games and one overseas. Packers president Mark Murphy recently floated this idea to ESPN, and it may have been a trial balloon intended to land in NFLPA offices.
The benefits for the NFL would be significant: The league would get more content to sell, and it could play 16 games overseas, which would allow the NFL to play regular games in markets besides London. That would allow the NFL to increase its international presence without the logistical challenges of having a permanent team in Europe.
The union has dismissed the idea. It has no interest in a 17-game schedule. But perhaps if the NFL made other concessions, like cutting the preseason, it could at least start a conversation. Or what if the NFL spread the 17 games over 20 weeks, which would give players two more off weeks, give TV networks three more weeks of programming and give the league a chance to spread its games all over the world?
When the history of the Goodell era is written, we may conclude that, in real time, we focused on the wrong issues. Goodell’s disciplinary power only affects a small percentage of players; how hard will the union really fight to restrict it? Thursday-night games, a hot topic among some players whose bodies haven’t recovered (and among fans who think the games are sloppy), are not going anywhere. But that desire to be even more of a worldwide business will most likely drive Goodell’s second decade.
Ten years is an eternity in sports. Consider: When Goodell took office in 2006, receiver Calvin Johnson was entering his junior year at Georgia Tech. Johnson has just completed a potential Hall of Fame career. A decade ago nobody had heard of Spygate, let alone Deflategate.
So nobody can say exactly what the NFL will look like in 10 years. But we can offer two bits of advice: Follow the money—even if the currency is pounds, not dollars. And never, ever, underestimate Roger Goodell.