Richest sport may yet fall to its knees

The NFL season begins tonight as the defending Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, host the Atlanta Falcons, writes Jack Anderson.

Richest sport may yet fall to its knees

The NFL is a sporting and commercial behemoth. It is the richest sports league in the world with revenues of over $13 billion (€11.2 billion) in 2017, which, by way of contrast, is double the reported record revenue of the Premier League for 2016/2017.

Last year, the NFL distributed a record $8bn (€6.8bn) in revenue share to its 32 teams. In a hallmark of the competitive balance which is so important to the NFL, every team received around $255m (€219m).

Proof of competitive balance in the NFL can be seen in the fact that since 1992, 16 different teams have won the Super Bowl. In contrast, since its inception in 1992, six teams have won the Premier League.

The long-term benefits of this socialistic-like distribution of revenue can also be seen in the sale, earlier this year, of the Carolina Panthers based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The franchise was bought by a hedge fund for an NFL record of $2.2b, even though, in terms of valuation rankings (metropolitan area size, TV market share, stadium economics etc), the Panthers are outside the top 20 of the 32 NFL teams.

The revenue distributed by the NFL more than covers what teams spend on their playing roster, and then some. Last week, Green Bay Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers (34), became the highest paid player in NFL history on agreeing a four-year contract extension, worth $134m.

The Green Bay Packers are one of the more storied of the NFL’s franchises and, in terms of their finances, one of the more open. The NFL does not officially reveal revenues and its financial health must be gauged from those released annually by the Packers, a supporters’ owned club.

For decades the NFL also remained private about the chronic problems its players were having on retirement with the cumulative consequences of head injuries sustained while playing the game. The issue of concussion is a long-term worry for the health of NFL players and increasingly a source of long-term worry for the NFL’s financial health.

When in 2013, the NFL reached a settlement (without admission of legal liability) in a class action taken against it by over a third of its former players, the terms of the agreement allowed for a $1bn payment to injured players.

In July of this year, the claim administrators admitted that in the two years since payouts began, they had already approved just over $500m. The original projections were that in the first decade of the concussion settlement, NFL payouts would be no more than $400m.

As scientific evidence mounts on links between CTE (degenerative brain disease) and American football, it may be that the settlement will have to be reopened.

Projected payouts to ex-players is one thing; projected playing numbers into the future is another.

Participation in high school football has declined nationally by 2% in the last two years. In the decade before that, there was a 5% decline. Questions about the future of the sport are being asked in state legislatures and large states such as New York and California have seen bills introduced (but not passed) to ban tackle football for players under 12.

At a presidential campaign rally in Florida in October 2016, Donald Trump gave his view on the concussion debate in the NFL. Referring to a woman who had fainted but returned to hear him speak, he said: “See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions — ‘Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season’ — our people are tough.”

The now President Trump has returned to this issue on Twitter where he attributed falling NFL viewing figures — figures fell by 10% for last year’s regular season compared to 2017 — not only to the NFL being soft on player welfare but being soft on player protests.

There is no denying that NFL viewing figures have been in decline but for reasons that are more nuanced than presented by President Trump and including a combination of concussion fears among parents; popular franchises in Dallas and New York having poor seasons; illegal streaming by the key 19-25 year-old demographic; and the poor, disciplinary handling by the NFL of domestic violence incidents involving players.

On player protests, Trump is referring to those led by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who during pre-season games in 2016 began to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem.

Kaepernick, who was quickly joined by others in the NFL and beyond as part of a wider Black Lives Matter campaign, sought to highlight awareness of police brutality and racial injustice in the US.

The Kaepernick-inspired protests, which Trump has conflated to being disrespectful to the American flag and its military, continues to frustrate NFL owners.

In May 2018, they adopted a protocol whereby players could remain in the dressing rooms for the anthem but if on the field, they had to stand.

The protocol has yet to be fully adopted and in the meantime some broadcasters have simply decided to remain with the studio until kick-off.

The month previously Amnesty International had named Kaepernick as an Ambassador of Conscience for his activism, echoing back five decades to John Carlos and Tommy Smith’s black power salute at the Mexico Olympic of 1968 and Muhammad Ali being stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be inducted into the US army for the Vietnam war.

Ali did not fight for three years. Kaepernick has not worked as an NFL player since the expiry of his 49ers contract in 2017. This week, he won the first stage in a legal battle against the NFL, alleging collusion among owners to ensure that he would never work again in the NFL.

This week Kaepernick, who has had links with Nike since 2011, also became the face of a marketing campaign coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the company’s ‘Just Do It’ slogan.

Kaepernick has been silent thus far on how the sponsorship tallies with his activism, though it is clear the some of the money will go to fund his Know your Rights charity.

The NFL has remained equally restrained but is sure to be silently seething given that their marketing for the opening week of the season has been ambushed by an ex-player who is also suing them. Moreover, the NFL only recently signed a contract extension with Nike to kit out all 32 teams on game day.

Nike’s attitude to the deal is summed up in a quote by vice-president of brand for North America, Gino Fisanotti, who told ESPN: “[Kaepernick] has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.”

Translated from the corporate guff, this means that Nike want to leverage Kaepernick’s image to help move more merchandise.

Industry analysts have noted that nearly two-thirds of consumers who wear Nike in the US are under 35 and are much more racially diverse than older NFL fans. Moreover, in 2017, and despite not being on any official roster, Kaepernick came in 39th on the NFL Players’ Association official merchandise top 50 list.

Nike’s sales pitch aside, as with many sporting, social and legal issues in the US, the undercurrent is one of race.

Interestingly, President Trump’s reaction on Twitter to the Kaepernick deal was relatively muted. The president is distracted this week as Senate hearings take place surrounding his nomination for the US Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh’s attitude to many key issues is unknown, particularly on race. A photo released during the week pointedly showed him playing social basketball at Yale with a team that included African Americans.

What exactly that sporting image is meant to project politically is unknown. What is known is that if Kavanaugh gets nominated, the US Supreme Court tips firmly to the right.

And so, while Kaepernick becomes the short-term face of Nike, as the NFL remains, for the moment, the face of US sport; in the most serious game of all, President Trump gets a shot at changing the face of America for many years to come.

- Jack Anderson, Professor of Sports Law, University of Melbourne

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