Roger Goodell presides over an organization that he hopes will rake in $25 billion annually by 2027. (John Raoux / Associated Press)
It all begins Thursday, though the real genius of Roger Goodell’s league is that it never really ends, with an offseason that fills the gaps better than any All-Pro linebacker.
The NFL has become such a behemoth that even its smallest details are a big deal, and no news is bad news, so long as it keeps everyone’s attention from Groundhog Day until Labor Day.
At which point, the regular season takes over, as it did this week with more than 60 player transactions Tuesday, including a contract extension that made Houston’s J.J. Watt the highest-paid defensive player in history. That initial 24-hour news cycle also featured a six-game suspension for a troubled owner, a four-game suspension for a five-time Pro Bowl receiver, and a second chance for the first openly gay player in league history.
Thursday night, the NFL kicks off its regular season with an actual football game: Green Bay at Seattle. It is both a possible sneak preview of the NFC Championship and a rematch of the infamous “Fail Mary” contest from 2012, when a replacement officiating crew botched the decisive final play and inadvertently settled the league’s contentious referee lockout.
That might seem like an odd choice to some, but it’s exactly that kind of circular logic that keeps the Goodell Ship Lollipop afloat. A rising tide sinks all other ships, I suppose. And in the NFL, where a salary cap promotes parity and every defeat also means a victory, the roundabout course offers a blueprint for success amid all the failures.
Take the case of Michael Sam, for example. Four months after the Rams made history by drafting Sam, and a few days after coach Jeff Fisher ripped ESPN for its “unethical” reporting on his showering habits, the rookie was released last Saturday. And after Sam found no immediate takers in a league that’s deathly afraid of “distractions,” it was the Cowboys — America’s Team, no? — calling a news conference Wednesday to announce they’d signed Sam to their practice squad.
And how’s this for awkward? While the NFL continues to support a franchise whose decades-old nickname is now officially deemed “disparaging” to Native Americans by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it has instructed its referees to crack down on racial insults and taunting. Slurs are subject to a 15-yard penalty on the field, while announcers in the broadcast booth are left to police themselves.
Similarly, one month the league is defending its tone-deaf disciplinary decision in the Ray Rice case, and the next it’s trumpeting a new tougher policy on domestic violence that was long overdue.
(And immediately tested, with the case of 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald, arrested on felony charges last weekend, first on the docket.)
“I didn’t get it right,” Goodell wrote in his letter to all 32 NFL owners and, presumably, an outraged general public.
Always a ratings winner
But right or wrong, this is our country’s favorite sport for the last 30 years and counting, easily pulling away from the pack. Of the 35 most-watched shows on television last fall, all but one was an NFL game.
The lone exception was the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, which, of course, was simply an appetizer before the Packers-Lions game kicked off.
Millions of us obsess over our fantasy football teams, but the league itself provides the ultimate in reality TV, from Johnny Manziel in Cleveland to Jerry Jones in Dallas. In terms of manufacturing controversy, the NFL runs circles around the competition, generating plenty of heat — and feeling it, too — seemingly without getting burned.
Concussions go from headaches to class-action lawsuits to record-setting settlements to a “Head Health Initiative” — never mind that push for an 18-game regular season and countless more collisions — but ratings don’t even flinch.
And while concerns about player safety have forced myriad changes — in practice and the rulebook — they also give the league collectively-bargained cover to attach radio-frequency identification chips to players that’ll eventually be used to enhance TV broadcasts with real-time tracking data. (”Hunger Games” here we come.)
As for the health hazards presented by all the shorter work weeks — made mandatory by the expanded Thursday night TV schedule — at least now fans of every NFL team are guaranteed a prime-time game, right?
(If the quality of play suffers, don’t bother adjusting your sets.)
Add in a late-season Saturday doubleheader, six extra weeks of flex scheduling, more games overseas and Goodell’s stated goal of reaching $25 billion in annual revenue by the year 2027 — it’s pushing $10 billion now — and it’s obvious where all this is headed.
Bigger might not be better, but you better get used to it. We’ve already got three nights of NFL games now, so what’s the harm in one more?
“I’m not sure where that line is,” said Al Michaels, the longtime play-by-play voice for network prime-time football. “There probably is a line when it might be a little dangerous. But right now, the thirst in this country for the NFL is insatiable. And I’m not sure it wouldn’t work seven nights a week.”
Mark Cuban, the media mogul and outspoken owner of the NBA’s Mavericks, strongly disagrees. This summer, he warned about the dangers of oversaturation, telling a group of reporters the “greedy” NFL was a decade away from “an implosion.”
“I’m just telling you, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered,” Cuban said. “And they’re getting hoggy. Just watch.”
Oh, don’t worry, we will.