- An owner’s sudden fall, the take-a-knee movement and its effects, the commissioner’s contract and a Cowboys star’s battle with the league were among the off-the-field stories that resonated in the past year
Having covered and analyzed the business of the NFL since leaving the Packers in 2009, I have never faced a shortage of topics to discuss. More than ever, the business of the NFL is the NFL, with 20 weekends of games interspersed among the constant off-field stories.
Here’s a look back at the stories that resonated most in another eventful year in NFL business, starting with the startling news from this weekend in Carolina…
1. Franchise for sale. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, the only current owner to have played in the NFL was, during my 10-year tenure in a front office, on a short list of most respected and consulted owners. That was then, this is now. Damning details of workplace impropriety uncovered by Sports Illustrated, along with previously undisclosed settlements in exchange for silence, have led to Richardson being investigated, and now selling the team, all in a span of a weekend. This stunning and rapid fall from grace sets up a rare auction for the team and a sale likely at or above $2 billion, certainly with rumors of a pending move from Charlotte following the expiration of the team’s lease on the stadium in 2019. Two other potential ramifications to watch are: (1) How much did the NFL ownership and league leadership know about Richardson and could or should they have have acted sooner? (2) Could there be a slippery slope of precedent here, as who knows what other damning information there is on any of its owners? (3) The NFL’s next CBA negotiation will now not include Richardson, one of the most hawkish owners, if not the most hawkish, in leveraging and commoditizing players. Ripples from this will last for years.
2. Take a knee. Colin Kaepernick started his silent protest some 16 months ago; dozens of players have continued what he started. Even owners jumped in to show solidarity after President Trump’s “sons of bitches” remark in September. Management/labor harmony, however, was short-lived, as Jerry Jones, Bob McNair and other owners pressed Commissioner Roger Goodell and their players to move on and stick to sports. In what became a negotiation, some common ground was reached with the players. Action steps included (1) a letter to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice Reform co-signed by Goodell and Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin (an unprecedented partnership of an NFL commissioner and a player representative) and (2) players welcomed into owners meetings to discuss social issues (in my decade in the league, I never saw one player attend a league meeting), leading to the league donating up to $90 million to social causes over the next seven years. For a league with a history of not viewing players as equals—see Richardson above—these are historic gains.
3. Goodell Era renewed. Goodell, in the face of protest-fueled criticism this year from owners (Jones), sponsors (Papa John’s), players (part of the job) and, of course, the President, was rewarded with a five-year extension, ensuring his tenure as commissioner until at least 2024. With varying reports of guaranteed and/or incentive-based compensation ranging $4 million to $40 million a year, the new boss will be the same old boss for the NFL, albeit with more owner oversight, thanks in part to league activator Jerry Jones. Goodell, the former league COO, will continue to prioritize annual revenues, steering the league toward his stated goal of $25 billion by 2027, and his personal priority of player conduct. Speaking of which…
4. Elliott’s endless battle. Three years after Goodell was excoriated for a too-light two-game domestic violence suspension to a star running back (Ray Rice), he swung the pendulum with a six-game suspension for Ezekiel Elliott despite there having been no criminal charges filed in the incident in question. The discipline brought the wrath of Jerry Jones and set off litigation throughout the fall, with Elliott’s early success in court allowing him to play into November. As so often happens in the NFL (Tom Brady), Elliott’s legal luck ran out at the appellate level, with the suspension reinstated. As with Brady, the CBA-infused power of the commissioner, after millions in NFLPA legal fees, was actually strengthened.
5. Not quite kissing Cousins. The most curious contract negotiation in the NFL in recent years continued when Washington once again became “engaged” to Kirk Cousins—through a second consecutive franchise tag the tune of $24 million after $20 million last year—rather than getting “married” with a long term deal. This commitment-challenged relationship may continue yet again in February with another tag (this time the transition tag, for $28 million. Meanwhile, while Cousins has high one-year earnings, he is now six years into his career without having the opportunity for a meaningful long-term contract. Speaking which…
6. Stafford stash. Matthew Stafford must be living right. He got one of the last bloated top rookie deals from the previous CBA and has used that to leverage not one but two massive extensions. His August mega-deal secures $86 million by March, with an overall potential value of $151 million. Should he play this deal out Stafford, by age 29, will have made $262 million (Tom Brady, now 40, has made $196 million in his career). Stafford is a rare winner in the business of football, along with…
7. BrockDollars. I was oddly giddy about the first “Moneyball” NFL trade in March, when the Texans gave up a 2018 second-round pick to Cleveland to offload Brock Osweiler’s guaranteed $16 million. The Browns then, unable to find a trade partner, offloaded Osweiler but not his salary, now paying him almost $1 million per week while he plays for the Broncos. My Moneyball giddiness, however, is tempered by the fact that the vast majority of NFL contracts do not have future guarantees; thus the contracts have no future value to the offloading team. As for Osweiler, well, nice work if you can get it.
8. Running to nowhere. Beyond Le’Veon Bell’s one-year franchise tag of $12 million, the veteran running back market cratered. Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Latavius Murray, Marshawn Lynch and LeGarrette Blount all signed what are essentially one-year deals at or below $3. 5 million. And perhaps aware of this short shelf life, incoming backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey sat out their college bowl games before being drafted fourth and eighth overall, respectively. With second and third contracts for running backs declining in value, time will tell if top college backs not only follow the road map that Fournette and McCaffrey laid out but also opt out of college games or practices even before that.
9. New media. As the year ended, the NFL announced a groundbreaking deal that addresses what is, in my opinion, its primary challenge for the future: attracting and maintaining younger viewers. The $500 million streaming deal with Verizon is primarily about mobile, the mantra for younger (and some older) viewers. The Verizon deal, along with the Disney-Fox acquisition that gives ESPN an ability to be a vertical provider like Netflix, is a harbinger of things to come in sports media. And the NFL has clearly tried to position itself to take advantage of new media, having already enticed Twitter (2016) and Amazon (2017) to sample NFL game programming.
10. Bet on it. The NFL, traditionally opposed to gambling as a threat to the game’s integrity, is certainly “evolving” on this issue. The league has embraced fantasy, invested in gaming integrity companies and now, of course, allowed the Raiders to move to the country’s gambling epicenter, Las Vegas. Meanwhile on the legal front the league is fighting the implementation of sports betting in New Jersey in the U.S. Supreme Court. Having attended the Court hearing this month, I predict a favorable outcome for New Jersey, which would set the stage for other states to jump in and permit sports betting. Along with other leagues, however, the NFL could continue to lobby for a federal solution. The clock is running, with a game-changing SCOTUS decision due in the spring. We are certainly at a moment in time for the NFL and gambling.
Finally, five NFL business stories I am looking ahead to in 2018:
1. The Panthers sale as a barometer of the health of the league. Scarcity creates value, and I think the final sale number will be impressive.
2. More proliferation of media deals, perhaps adding another pipeline to “Thursday Night Football” streaming after one-year tastes for Twitter and Amazon.
3. Whether increased oversight by ownership will have an impact on the commissioner’s power over player discipline or other league matters.
4. The financial future of quarterbacks such as Jimmy Garoppolo (I still don’t understand why the 49ers didn’t negotiate a contract upon the trade), Case Keenum, Kirk Cousins and perhaps Alex Smith. And, of course, Colin Kaepernick.
5. Whether, with leadership of the NFL and NFLPA secured for the future, there will be meaningful negotiations towards a new CBA. I’m certainly not holding my breath here.
To all, a happy New Year; look forward to continuing to bring you what I hope are unique insights in an exciting 2018! Stay true to the good.