The elite NFL is pro sports' billion dollar baby

Sept. 8, 2009 at 4:08 a.m.

Thursday, 09-10 release () — (EDITORS: This story is embargoed until publication of Thursday, Sept. 10 or after.)


By Gary West

McClatchy Newspapers


The National Football league has become the premier sports league in the country, if not the world, and sometime today you'll probably find yourself staring at a major reason for this grand success: television. With various television networks, the NFL has contracts good through, in some cases, 2011 and, in others, 2013 worth more than $20 billion.

Yes, that's "billion." The lucrative contracts give the NFL teams more earning power, hence more value, than their counterparts in other sports; they also give the NFL teams a certain measure of security in difficult economic times.

As a result, 19 of the world's 24 professional franchises valued, according to "Forbes," at $1 billion or more are NFL teams. The Dallas Cowboys, at $1.65 billion, are foremost among them, followed by Washington, New England, New York Giants, New York Jets and Houston. Three soccer teams and the New York Yankees complete the "Forbes" list of 10 elite franchises.

No NBA or NHL teams made the elite grade. The NFL is clearly the premier league in the country and the most commercially successful league in the world. And it's not only the television money, but the sharing of that money among all the teams that has elevated the league far beyond its rivals.

And that was one of Pete Rozelle's many contributions. The NFL's unprecedented success is "thanks largely" to Rozelle, according to Michael Leeds, an economics professor at Temple University and co-author, with Peter von Allman, of "The Economics of Sports". Shortly after he became the commissioner of the NFL in 1960, and following the business model of the American Football League, Rozelle first persuaded the NFL owners to share television revenue and then persuaded lawmakers to allow the league a limited exemption from the antitrust laws.

Of course, sharing revenue wouldn't have been so important without the demand for programming that the sport's popularity created. Football was perfect for television, all the action confined to a rectangular space but with too much simultaneous movement to be described easily and verbally for radio.

The timing was perfect, too. In 1950, the Washington Redskins and the Los Angeles Rams became the first teams to have all their home games televised. Just as the sport came of age, so did the technology to popularize it.

Perhaps most important, though, to the timing of it all were the profound changes Americans were making in the quotidian patterns of their lives. Throughout the 20th century, more and more Americans moved from rural into urban areas. They left behind their farms and took jobs in factories, became salesmen, opened up shops on Main Street.

In 1920, at the start of professional football, the population was almost equally split (48.8 percent of Americans lived on farms, or in rural areas, according to the census). By 1950, when the NFL began its move to television, many Americans already had moved to the city: 64 percent lived in urban areas. In 2000, according to the census, 79 percent lived in large cities.

That's significant because baseball, which was regarded as the national pastime for most of the 20th century, is essentially a pastoral sport, while football, with its specialization and time constraints and its subordination of the individual to the team, more faithfully reflects an industrialized society. As if to emphasize this, even some of football's terminology (bomb, blitz, trenches) is derived from modern warfare.

Social change, farm-to-city migration, technological progress, Pete Rozelle, revenue sharing — they all brought the NFL to where it is today, the country's premier sports league, with an intensely loyal fan base. A recent study by BrandAssent Consulting found that the NFL had the largest percentage of self-proclaimed avid fans. Among NFL fans, 26 percent said they were avid, compared to 20 percent for MLB fans and only 10 percent for NBA fans.

Yes, the NFL has become the national pastime. But what's next? Where's the next level?

Commissioner Roger Goodell has indicated that globalization could be the next goal for the NFL. The British Broadcasting Company recently reported the possibility of the Super Bowl being played in London's Wembley Stadium.

The report was so credible that apparently Goodell felt the need to deny it and say the Super Bowl wasn't going to London or Mexico City or anywhere else beyond the border, for that matter. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean the NFL won't be on the move, even while the Super Bowl stays home.

Is the world ready for the NFL? That question invites both skepticism and caution. NFL Europa was a prolonged experiment and a 16-year failure, the league finally dying of ennui in 2007. On the other hand, huge crowds have attended games in Mexico City (103,000 in 2005, for example). The Buffalo Bills have looked, at the very least, with curiosity across the border at Toronto. And the NFL's infatuation with London seems relentless, with the Patriots and Buccaneers to play there next month.

Do the conditions that have fostered the NFL's growth in this country even exist in Europe? Canada? Japan? And will other countries view the NFL's exporting efforts as sports imperialism? Such are the questions that could await the NFL at the next level.


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