Like it does every year, the NFL in 2019 featured a constant flurry of off-field matters, many of which were more interesting than what was happening on field. The games are the storefront for a business with roughly $15 billion in annual revenues and growing. The real NFL action takes place between owners, teams, players and the players union, all fighting for their share of an abundant pie. Among those many business stories from the year, here is my annual list of the Top 10 Business of Football stories of the year.
1. Andrew Luck leaves football (for good). As with most stories on this list, this news first struck me as shocking. However, as time passed it made complete sense. Luck is, well, “different,” and that is not a bad thing. He passed on an opportunity to be the top pick in the NFL draft in 2011, preferring to stay at Stanford (he was the top pick in 2012); he never hired a traditional agent to negotiate his record-setting contracts (he used his uncle); he hosts a book club and—most unique as a 20-something in 2019—he does not own a smartphone. Knowing what I know about him (I have known his father for 20 years), I believe Luck will not miss playing football one bit and his life will be much fuller without it.
2. Steelers and Giants—gladly—shed superstar receivers. In trading Antonio Brown, the Steelers were willing to take on $21 million of dead money, the second-highest charge on their team cap. In trading Odell Beckham, the Giants were willing to eat a $20 million signing bonus given six months before and take on a $16 million dead money cap charge. Indeed, the resonating story of the 2019 offseason was that—even amid harsh cap and cash ramifications—the Steelers and Giants decided they were better off without Brown and Beckham than with them. Let that sink in.
3. Antonio’s antics. Brown was a running soap opera all year, part of three AFC teams yet only having earned one game check. The Steelers’ many years of tolerance ran out and they moved Brown to the Raiders for two mid-round draft picks. The Raiders (ostensibly) gave Brown $30 million of guarantees before voiding those guarantees and releasing him. Enter the Patriots, who (ostensibly) gave Brown a $9 million signing bonus before releasing him. Now, of course, there are lawyers who will attempt to help Brown secure some, if any, of the $40 million of (ostensible) guarantees. Brown’s contracts this offseason are another illustration that even the guaranteed portions of NFL contracts are not really guaranteed, especially for someone as volatile as Brown.
4. Player power increasing…for a few. Players such as Ezekiel Elliott, Jadeveown Clowney, Jalen Ramsey and yes, Brown, were all able to—through holding out or “holding in” (being with their team in a discontented state)—leverage their way into better contracts or preferred destinations. This prompted some to suggest that NFL player power was increasing. And it is, if, and only if you are a special, difference-making player. The Chargers’ Melvin Gordon, a very good player but not an elite one, failed in trying to play the leverage game, returning to the team with nothing but three weeks of salary lost. For the handful of players with elite talents, they can “discontent” their way to better working conditions. For all others, good luck with that.
5. (Most) quarterbacks cash in. Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff negotiated top-of-market quarterback contracts in the offseason. Unlike Goff and Wentz, who had two years remaining on their rookie deals, Wilson could have truly tested the limits of the quarterback marketplace—both in total earnings and guarantees—by playing out the season. He could not resist the sums put in front of him by the Seahawks and the certainty of the franchise tag in 2020. Conspicuously absent from those cashing in was Dak Prescott, who will be in much better position negotiating as a franchise tag player—at roughly $25 million—rather than from this year’s salary starting point of under $700,000. Prescott heads a fascinating list of free agent quarterbacks for 2020 that includes Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Jameis Winston, Ryan Tannehill, Marcus Mariota and more. I have many future columns ahead of me.
6. Kaepernick tryout washout. To my knowledge, the NFL had never scheduled a workout for an individual player until it hastily arranged one for Colin Kaepernick on a Saturday in mid-November at the Falcons facility. Of course, that workout never happened due to a dispute over a liability waiver, among other issues. Kaepernick staged his own workout closer to the Atlanta airport, yet only seven of the original 25 team representatives set to attend the NFL workout could be bothered to attend the other one, which was quite telling. Thus, we are where we were before, as if the workout never happened: no team is willing to sign Kaepernick with no sign of change ahead. Kaepernick’s activism evoked an NFL response that, while not legally collusive, has been clearly punitive.
7. Embracing sports betting (although not for players). Having lost their case in the Supreme Court, the NFL was brought into the world of legalized sports betting kicking and screaming. They now face a state-by-state patchwork rather than their preference of a federal bill, but knowing the fan engagement and monetization opportunities, the league will go all-in on “real” gambling. They recently made a deal for Caesar’s Palace to be the league’s “Official Casino Sponsor.” And ironically, a player—the Cardinals’ Josh Shaw—who bet on an NFL game at that very sponsor, is now suspended at least through 2020. Even with a team about to start operations in the casino mecca of Las Vegas, gambling and casinos are off limits to the players. The NFL’s messaging is clearly, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
8. Winning the offseason, losing the season. The Jaguars gave the year’s largest free agent contract to Nick Foles, who suffered an injury in Week 1, eventually returned and was benched. The two other mega-contracts given out in free agency were to Trey Flowers and Landon Collins, now playing for the cellar-dwelling Lions and Redskins. The highest free agent spending team was the Jets. There is a pattern here. Yes, there are free agent signings that work—the Packers’ signings of Zadarius and Preston Smith come to mind—but my initial thoughts about free agents that I had as a team executive are still the ones I have today: “Why is his incumbent team not signing him? What is wrong with him?” Free agency in football is not as seamless as it is in baseball or basketball; that is proven every year.
9. Labor pains, but no CBA. We are only a year away from the expiration of the extraordinary 10-year NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement, with mixed messages about a new one. While there has been optimism about a new deal, that is tempered by dire predictions of strikes and lockouts. Of course a deal will get done—there is too much at stake for both sides for it not to—with the only question being what terms it will have. As to one important term, I see no way a deal happens without a regular season of 17 games and extended playoffs. The union has nothing other than that to give with true value to the owners.
10. Business continues to boom. We—you, me and everyone you know—complain to our friends about the NFL’s officiating, arbitrary discipline, length of games, stupid commercials, violence, draconian rules, robotic commissioner, entitled players, etc. But…we watch; we always watch. Media ratings are up across all platforms, the average franchise value is well over $2 billion and growing. And with gleaming new stadiums coming along in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, new revenue streams ahead from legalized gambling and record-breaking media deals ahead, the business of the NFL will only get better. And believe me, our complaints are a good thing for the NFL. Other leagues can only wish for the NFL’s “problems.” It shows we care, and we care a lot.
It’s been another eventful year in the NFL. Oh, and yes, they play games too.
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