The NFL: Bad Publicity is Better Than No Publicity

Photo Credit: USATSI

Photo Credit: USATSI

As we have commenced yet another NFL season, the league remains more popular than ever. Judging by the national headlines though, many would assume that the league has entered major turmoil. Ray Rice’s controversial domestic violence case, Roger Goodell’s mishandling of that case, Adrian Peterson’s paternal issues, and now, the most prevalent one – Tom Brady and Deflategate – have all dominated headlines since the beginning of 2014. Prior to that, Michael Vick’s dogfighting allegations and Aaron Hernandez’s homicide trials put a black mark on the league.

For the most part, these negative stories have taken over spring and summer headlines, well before training camps even begin. Do not be fooled, though – the NFL loves every second of the drama.

Yes, Roger Goodell just lost in court and even though the NFL has appealed Judge Berman’s overrule on Deflategate, Goodell has already accomplished what he has set out to do.

Compared to seemingly every other sport in America, the NFL has unquestionably the longest offseason. Take a look at the schedules of some of other major professional sports in America (ONLY includes regular season/postseason action):

Sport/League Last Game Played Previous Season First Game Played Next Season Offseason Length (in days)
NFL February 1, 2015 September 10, 2015 220 days
MLB October 29, 2014 April 5, 2015 157 days
NBA June 16, 2015 October 27, 2015 132 days
NHL June 15, 2015 October 7, 2015 113 days
FedEx Cup Golf January 9, 2015 October 11, 2015 89 days
NASCAR November 16, 2014 February 14, 2015 89 days
MLS December 7, 2014 March 6, 2015 88 days
ATP Tennis November 16, 2014 January 4, 2015 48 days

The NFL offseason lasts for over 60% of the calendar year and even in season, the league typically only plays games three times a week. MLB’s offseason, the next-longest period of inaction between major sports leagues, lasts more than two months shorter than the NFL.

Furthermore, with the massive TV contracts the NFL has signed with each of the four major satellite channels, each major sporting network starves for live football content. Two of the four major networks associated with the NFL – NBC (ProFootballTalk) and ESPN (NFL Live) – televise studio shows year-round. Fox Sports Live and America’s Pregame on Fox Sports 1 heavily incorporate NFL coverage on many of their studio shows during the offseason. The NFL Network markets itself as “Football Never Stops” and thus, continually shows NFL coverage. These show producers need something to talk about that will keep viewers tuned in to the channel and still interested in the league during the offseason.

NFL Network produces live studio content seemingly for all 365 days in a year. They need actual material to talk about all offseason (Photo Credit: NFL)

NFL Network produces live studio content seemingly for all 365 days in a year. They need actual material to talk about all offseason (Photo Credit: NFL)

 

Thus, the NFL has notoriously blown up many of the aforementioned issues in recent years. Remember the Ray Rice suspension, which Goodell handed out in February 2014 then notoriously back-tracked and established a harsh domestic violence policy a few months later? Or the standoff between the players and owners that lasted the entirety of the 2011 offseason? Or Bountygate, in which it took seemingly all of the 2012 offseason to finalize the verdict of Sean Payton and other players (who were all later exonerated)? Or the Aaron Hernandez trial for murder in 2013, when the Patriots waited until training camp of that year to officially release him? Or when Goodell handed out salary cap penalties to the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins in 2012?

Every year, something or the other pops up, which takes over the national storylines for seemingly an eternity. Unlike in past offseasons, when player misconduct outside of the playing field dominated headlines, players (for the most part) collectively stayed out of major trouble this past offseason, unless that player’s name begins with Aldon and ends with Smith. While Smith got arrested for DUI, which caused the 49ers to release him, he does not have the name recognition as any of the other players or coaches who have dominated offseason headlines in past years.

This brings us to Tom Brady and Roger Goodell’s standoff. In the big picture, the issue of deflated footballs is trivial, especially considering that the game in question resulted in a 45-7 blowout. In that game, the Patriots had three rushing touchdowns and 177 yards on the ground. For his career, Andrew Luck has lost to the Patriots (including postseason) all four times he has matched up with them, by 35, 21, 22, and 38 points respectively. That equals a 29-point average margin of defeat, with the closest loss by a mere three touchdowns. Deflated footballs or not, the Patriots have established themselves as a far superior team to the Colts over the past few seasons, which is reflected on the scoreboard.

LeGarrette Blount rushed for 148 and three touchdowns in the AFC Championship blowout victory over the Colts (Photo Credit: Elise Amendola/AP Photo)

LeGarrette Blount rushed for 148 and three touchdowns in the AFC Championship blowout victory over the Colts (Photo Credit: Elise Amendola/AP Photo)

Understandably, detractors would harshly claim that the Patriots have repeatedly broken the rules in the past and have gotten away with cheating by the league. After all, just a week prior to the 2015 AFC Championship, John Harbaugh accused the Patriots of cheating by running illegal plays. Before that, Outside the Lines reported that New England illegally taped several opponents’ hand signals, which offered them an unfair competitive advantage. As a result, the rest of the NFL owners wanted the league to come down harshly on the Patriots, which they surely did by assessing two lost draft picks, a $1 million fine, and a four-game suspension to the team’s star quarterback.

New England owner Robert Kraft conceded to some wrongdoing by conceding the fine and loss of draft picks, but Brady’s suspension went to court. After Goodell initially upheld Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, the two sides went to an Appeals Court in New York, in which Brady ultimately prevailed. This ENTIRE process, an issue stemming from just the deflation of footballs, lasted from the AFC Championship on January 18 all the way until the overturn of the suspension on September 3. It took eight months to resolve an issue concerning deflated footballs. Not performance-enhancing drugs, criminal cases, temper tantrums, or other forms of misbehavior on or off the football field. Deflated footballs.

Goodell had a reason for all of this, and he will almost assuredly come away from this as the secret victor of the 2015 offseason. The NFL’s popularity has rapidly grown every year since Goodell took over as NFL Commissioner in August 2006. He transferred the salary cap power from the players (who previously received 57% of league-wide revenues) to the owners (who now receive 52% share of all revenue) through the 2011 CBA.

Total league revenues have significantly increased, from almost $8.5 billion in 2010 to over $12 billion in 2015. In comparison, the MLB receives $9 billion, the NBA receives $5 billion, and the NHL receives $3.6 billion respectively in annual revenues. Ridiculously lucrative TV deals with each of the four major networks and a partnership with Yahoo! Sports and DirecTV, among many other platforms, have significantly contributed to NFL’s dominance in America. Furthermore, the brand new Levi’s Stadium in the Bay Area (49ers) and two new upcoming stadiums in Atlanta and Minnesota, along with the inevitably new team likely headed to LA before the end of this decade, will make the NFL an even more lucrative entity going forward.

All of this despite the fact that the NFL is in-season for less than 40% of the calendar year. Regular season and postseason NFL games only take up 56 days out of the 365 days in a calendar year, more than three times less than the amount of days MLB, NBA, or NHL games are played.

For the remaining parts of the year, the NFL must stay relevant, and Goodell has consistently put his league on the map for all 12 months out of the year. He recognizes that off-field storylines bring far greater anticipation and build-up to any NFL game than simply letting the action take care of itself. (INSERT: Pats-Steelers viewers). Thus, every Super Bowl this decade has eclipsed 110 million viewers, while football absolutely dominated the TV landscape in 2014.

This year, the viewership figures have gone even higher. Take a look at the number of people who have watched some of the marquee matchups so far in the 2015 season:

Game Network # of Viewers
WK 1: Steelers at Patriots NBC 27.4 million
WK 1: Packers at Bears Fox 20.1 million
WK1: Ravens at Broncos CBS 23.3 million
WK1: Cowboys at Giants NBC 26.8 million
WK1: Eagles at Falcons ESPN 13.56 million
WK1: Vikings at 49ers ESPN 14.33 million
WK2: Broncos at Chiefs CBS/NFL Network 21.117 million
WK2: Cowboys at Eagles Fox 27.2 million
WK2: Seahawks at Packers NBC 26.8 million
WK2: Jets at Colts ESPN 12.5 million

While the NFL will never openly admit it, the entire league scored a major victory in the aftermath of Deflategate, even if Goodell lost in court. The league created controversy on one of the league’s most polarizing and popular figures, which got even the most casual fans tuning in to the media coverage of this case.So far, the viewership figures portray the NFL’s dominance over every other sporting league in America. With daily and weekly fantasy sports (along with gambling) taking off, more people have significant interest in watching games in which their favorite teams do not play.

By generating interest in a trivial call throughout the offseason, Roger Goodell has come away as the biggest winner in the aftermath of Deflategate (Photo Credit: Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

By generating interest in a trivial call throughout the offseason, Roger Goodell has come away as the biggest winner in the aftermath of Deflategate (Photo Credit: Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Publicity allows the casual viewer to inherently know when the games air, and the longer any negative news lingers away from the playing field, the greater the anticipation that builds towards that game. Under Goodell’s leadership, the NFL has combined a soap-opera mentality with growing the sport both on and off the field, which has allowed Goodell to continuously absorb public relations hits in favor of generating more interest in the league.

At the end of the day, the owners pay Goodell the money and as long as people keep investing in the NFL brand or product, the commissioner could not care less about people’s perceptions about him. By dropping the tax-exempt status, the NFL gets to hide Goodell’s annual compensation, but he received $44 million in 2012 and another $35 million in 2013, the final two years in which the NFL publicized his annual earnings. That alone shows how much all 32 owners collectively value Goodell and his impact on the growth of the league. Goodell’s ability to manufacture attention to the NFL throughout the offseason has gone a long way in securing the NFL’s lead status in this country.