These days, Roger Goodell is accustomed to boos when he’s introduced to a room. Last Wednesday the NFL commissioner drew polite applause as he walked onto a stage in front of about 200 CEOs and senior executive types.
The event was Bloomberg’s The Year Ahead Summit; Goodell’s participation made sense. During a season in which TV viewership is down, and the NFL has drawn criticism from a major sponsor and the President of the United States for a fraction of players demonstrating during the national anthem, it was one business leader avowing to a room of business leaders that his brand is still strong. Goodell wore a sharp blue suit and pitched the strength of the NFL’s big events like the Super Bowl, and the league’s growing popularity outside the United States, and pro football still offering “the greatest content.”
It was toward the end of the 20-minute Q&A when Goodell addressed the topic of the moment: his future. The specific question asked by Bloomberg’s David Westin: What is it that you feel you need to accomplish before you leave?
“I’ve studied this for a long time having been in the NFL for 36 years, and I watch other sports,” Goodell said, three sentences into his response. “I think there’s always a risk that people stay too long, and I don’t want to be in that category.”
It was an intriguing answer, considering that some would say Goodell has already stayed too long, particularly now that he has made an enemy of the owner most willing to go rogue, the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones. What’s become clear over the last few weeks, as Jones works to halt negotiations over a contract extension for Goodell through 2024, is that Goodell’s hold on his job is the most tenuous it’s been since he took over in 2006. The MMQB’s Peter King reported on Sunday that Jones is working to “overthrow” Goodell, an about-face in his support of the commissioner that coincides with Jones’ displeasure over the levying of a six-game suspension against Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for allegations of domestic violence.
Goodell’s re-signing through 2024 is still the most probable outcome, despite Jones’ threats of litigation against other owners if a Goodell extension as currently proposed is inked. In May the 32 NFL team owners voted unanimously to extend Goodell’s contract, authorizing the compensation committee to lead negotiations. Yesterday, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the chair of the compensation committee, released a statement that the committee is “continuing its work towards finalizing a contract extension with the Commissioner.”
How the owners, including Jones, proceed is out of Goodell’s hands. But Goodell’s own wariness of staying “too long” in the job does not mean he’s ready to walk away now. In fact, the rest of his answer at the Bloomberg summit jibed with a specific timeline, one that’s been commonly expected in league circles over the past few years: That Goodell will serve one more term as commissioner.
“You want to have an impact; you want to be able to meet the challenges that we have ahead,” Goodell said.
The three challenges Goodell said he and the owners have named, in the order he presented them:
1. Negotiating deals with new media
2. Extending the current labor deal
3. Setting up a succession plan
The NFL’s current broadcast deals with its four major TV partners are up for renewal in 2021-22, and as the way viewers consume the NFL continues to change, maximizing digital platforms will be increasingly important. The current collective bargaining agreement, on which Goodell got high marks from owners, expires after the 2020 season. And, there is currently no known succession plan in place; or, at the least there are no leading candidates at the league office being groomed for the position. An extension through 2024 would cover each of these areas, which is probably why it was drawn up exactly that way.
It’s possible that Jones gets his way; the NFL long ago learned never to underestimate the power he wields. The same could also be said for Goodell’s stubbornness. Just a week ago, as speculation about his future swirled around him, he was on stage noting the pivotal work awaiting the NFL in the next few years and the time and effort that would need to go into setting up a succession plan. It’s not for him to decide how long is “too long,” but it wasn’t hard to decipher his answer—or the underlying message.
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