The fate and compensation of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell elicits no shortage of opinion, much of it negative, about the face of the league. ESPN’s report on Sunday about influential Cowboys owner Jerry Jones “impeding” progress on Goodell’s new deal only turned up the volume. Stepping back from the hysteria, let’s look behind the curtain of NFL ownership and its dealing with the commissioner, a relationship I saw firsthand during my decade as a team executive with the Packers.
Every team in the league, without exception, believes Goodell and the league office treats other teams better than they treat them. It is a universal paranoia and inferiority complex to which no team is immune (in Green Bay we thought we received inferior treatment due to our lack of an owner).
The corollary to this paranoia is that when Goodell does something to infuriate one owner, as he has recently with Robert Kraft (Tom Brady) and now Jones (Ezekiel Elliott), you must know that a cadre of other owners are giving him an “Attaboy, Roger!” for decisions seen as made for the greater good. Speaking of Kraft and Jones, we never heard either one sticking up for the other when their team fell under Goodell’s sword. Further, in crossing two of the most influential owners in the league, it is clear Goodell does not play favorites with his discipline. Other owners have certainly noted that.
Each team and ownership group has their own agenda, whether on the business side (think smaller versus larger markets) as well as the football side (the latest on-field injustice to their team). As I saw with both Paul Tagliabue and Goodell, the role of the commissioner is to use his political capital and personal relationships to sway the room towards consensus and pleasing all 32.
I am amused at reports about Kraft being “furious” about Brady and Jones being “livid” about Elliott. While those emotions may have been true at the time, they will not last. NFL owners compartmentalize well; Kraft and Jones will have a chip to play with the commissioner, the league office and other owners down the road. These relationships are not linear; they are long and meandering.
The Power Center
Speaking of Jones, his growing influence is no secret. In my time at NFL meetings, the room always perked up when Jones took the floor with his homespun humor, bravado and no lack of direct contentiousness. Jones would call out teams not marketing their product with the fervor that he did, those that sat back and collected their 1/32 check of league revenues with little effort. That enraged him, and rightfully so.
I further noticed Jones’s star rising—pardon the Cowboys pun— during the L.A. relocation meetings last year. Jones moved a faction of “old guard” owners supporting Chargers owner Dean Spanos, a longtime league loyalist, in moving the room toward Rams owner Kroenke and his much bigger vision. Jones similarly shepherded the necessary votes for Mark Davis and the Raiders to move there. In his vision, which more league owners are now following, the NFL needed to think bigger and be where “the action is” in years to come.
For these reasons, I understand the reaction to any suggestion that Jones may not be totally on board with Goodell, as he can probably move a few owners in their opinion about the commissioner. Alas, Jones has walked back the report with a cryptic suggestion that this may be nothing more than some details about the compensation package and its structure, which, of course, begs the question of how much Goodell should make.
The NFL, as I learned, has a committee for everything, putting owners “to work” on various groups that could use their expertise gleaned from their decades of business experience. The committee charged with leading the discussion on the length and size of Goodell’s compensation package includes six owners known to be very supportive of Goodell, including committee chairman and Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, Giants owner John Mara, Steelers owner Art Rooney, Texans owner Bob McNair and, yes, Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Blank, when asked about the ESPN report, was dismissive, saying Jones’s input was received and all appeared to moving forward with the extension and compensation package.
And what is that compensation level? Since the NFL removed its tax-exempt status a couple of years ago, Goodell’s compensation, as that of other league executives, remains a secret. We can assume, however, that it is in the range of where it has been in the past, roughly $32 million per year, or $1 million per owner. And while Jones may be pushing for a more incentive-based compensation package, Blank can certainly make the case for each owner to pony up $1 million a year to the steward of a business that continues to boom.
These are salad days for NFL owners in all the key metrics. A 10-year collective bargaining agreement, barely half-complete, is as owner-friendly as any in major professional sports today. Each owner receives a league wide distribution of $240 million, a number far above player costs per the salary cap ($167 million). Franchise values are skyrocketing, with average valuations approaching $2 billion (some franchises were purchased for 10-20% of that number). And “scandals” involving Ray Rice, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Ezekiel Elliott, etc. have served to keep NFL conversation buoyant during slower offseason months.
Blank and his group may also present comparables of compensation levels for CEOs of both private and public companies with similar revenue streams ($13-15 billion a year). My sense is many of those comparables will dwarf Goodell’s compensation, especially for publicly held companies giving CEOs lucrative stock options and warrants valued far beyond their salaries.
As for the narrative that “anyone could lead the NFL and have it make $13 billion,” whether true or not, this is how the game works. Goodell takes the blame for owners when things do not go well—that is no small part of his job description—so he will get the credit (at least financially) when things are going well.
Despite the rosy financial picture, there are certainly concerns that ownership must consider. However, my sense is these concerns get more attention in the media than they do in ownership discussions.
As for a TV ratings dip in this early part of the season, it is too early to tell if this will be a trend or not. My sense is ratings for non-marquee teams may soften while the “star” teams—Cowboys, Packers, Patriots, Steelers, Giants, etc.—will continue to produce boffo numbers. Even with a decline in ratings, however, are networks really going to devalue the NFL in a few years if ratings go down? Please.
Goodell and the NFL have strategically negotiated one-year deals with Twitter (last year) and Amazon (this year), a list that (in my view) will inevitably include Facebook, YouTube and Google, whetting their appetite for future bidding on the NFL. Options create leverage; leverage creates favorable deals.
As for concerns of sparse attendance in Los Angeles, owners see this as a (relatively) minor speed bump in their road to profitability at Kroenke’s Shangri-La in Inglewood. And ticket revenues are not what they used to be in the NFL; broadcast revenues dwarf them.
As to the player safety issue, the NFL has reduced its offseason and practice contact, much to the chagrin of NFL coaches, in addition to other safety measures. It will be hard to make an inherently violent game safe, although the violence is part of the attraction to the mass audience.
As for the lack of relationship with Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith, owners know that Goodell “won” the CBA in 2011, both in court and in negotiations, and have precedent on their side in both.
So where are we with what I have called our Conduct Commissioner, Roger Goodell? Well, we will likely have him for 2019 and beyond, with a lucrative compensation package, much to the chagrin of some fans, media and certainly union leadership. The reality is that, despite the stirring of some conversation this weekend, Goodell is pleasing the constituency that matters to him most: owners, sponsors, network executives and other business stakeholders.
Goodell would certainly help his image by showing some more humanity and vulnerability—it is there, I have seen it—but my sense is the constituency mentioned above don’t want that side on display. Rather they want the corporate face of the league unflinching in the face of criticism, staying on task with bland, unrevealing party lines about the game, its safety and its players. It is the Goodell that owners want; taking the bullets so they don’t have to. And it is the Goodell that the owners will likely extend and handsomely compensate, despite any report otherwise.
The Conduct Commissioner is here to stay.
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