If I Were Commissioner
by Ivan Cole
It’s relatively easy to be a critic. Untold thousands feel both qualified and emboldened to render judgment on the efforts of others and deem them as being either worthy or not. But the number of those who have the opportunity, courage, perseverance and skill to create products of high quality is exceedingly small, and critics, particularly the more self-assured and voracious of the breed, are rarely among them.
For several years, I have lamented the state of the National Football League, and the behavior of some its grand actors such as commissioner Roger Goodell. I continue to believe that they have earned the harsh critiques they have received and more. But, as I have said, it’s easy to be a critic. More difficult to discern is how reform is implemented, short of overseeing the demolition of a highly successful sports entertainment empire by way of the following:
- Moving forward towards an effete, toothless, flag footbally future that leeches away what made the sport great and alienates the game’s most integral and loyal fans.
- A suicidal, retro approach that eventually crashes and burns in human wreckage and lawsuits, or,
- Continue the ongoing corporate cook-the-goose strategy. A WWE in helmets, with the attendant vulgarity of values and practices.
How to proceed in a manner that creates a potential win/win/win for owners, players and fans? Here’s my best shot.
Owners have been hankering for an eighteen-game regular season. I say give them what they want. I say give them a nice round number of twenty.
However, there will have to be a few concessions.
First, rosters will be expanded to at least fifty percent greater than current levels, and all contracts are guaranteed.
Second, during the regular season there will be a minimum two week gap between games played. This will mean that the length of an NFL season will be in line with that of the other major professional sports (baseball, basketball and hockey), most likely spanning a period from July through February, but will expand by only four regular season games. I will also expand the playoffs, adding an additional play-in round for four (two each conference) wild card teams. The playoffs would maintain a weekly schedule up to the conference championship games. What would be the benefits to various stakeholders in such an arrangement?
For a corporate entity and its partners who have been seeking a year-round presence in the lives of consumers, an eight-month span where there is actual football being played is preferable to the ‘fake news’ and other marketing ploys that fans have been subjected to during an off season that is double the length of other sports. But, unlike other sports, where there is an over saturation effect of contests that would have very limited bearing upon the long term fortunes of a team, individual NFL games still maintain the possibility of high individual value with the corresponding drama and urgency attached.
How it works is that schedules and byes will be manipulated such that there will be football every week during the season, though individual teams will only be on stage half of the time. I would favor the elimination of Thursday (Thanksgiving excepted) and Sunday night games. Monday night would go back to being the only showcase primetime game where the participating teams are the sole focus of both fans and their peers. This format also allows for every team to participate in one international game a year.
More weekends of football means more revenue opportunities for both advertisers and the league and the leverage to demand more from broadcast partners. The possibilities of global expansion are accelerated and enhanced. Game quality could improve, in theory, as teams have more time to prepare and recover, and have more resources at their disposal. The incentives for players to perform hurt are reduced, again, contributing to higher quality of play. The inertia of the fragmentation and atomization of fan interest could potentially be reversed.
It would be in the interest of all parties that fans expand their knowledge and attention beyond just their favorite team. Parity may suffer because more competent organizations (like Pittsburgh) should be able to leverage the situation in such a manner that they may begin to significantly separate from the more dysfunctional organizations. With a more generally knowledgeable and appreciative fan base, this may not be a problem, and it could pressure low performing franchises to clean up their acts or die.
There will no pretense that this solution offers a risk-free environment for the players, but it improves their chances of surviving the experience without being permanently, even fatally scarred. There will be more jobs, and they know that they will be compensated for the life of their contracts provided they honor the provisions. It is also not unreasonable to assume that many careers can be potentially extended, especially for mid-career, non-superstar veterans. This improves long term income potential for the players, and more experienced players on rosters will raise the quality of the product on the field.
For the league’s partners and the media, while the actual number of games has increased only by a fraction, the opportunities to present and sell has actually more than doubled. I will gladly wager that early season professional football in July will elicit a more robust consumer response than baseball in April, or the NBA and NHL in October/November. With the possible exception of the incompetent franchises such as Cleveland, that interest will maintain throughout an expanded season.
Even in such cases, with some wise marketing, the lack of interest in a dysfunctional franchise can be compensated for. As someone who lived through years of failed Steelers teams, fans are capable of maintaining loyalty to one team and developing secondary affinities for a season.
An expanded season also means a significantly condensed off-season. Draft, free agency and league meetings will occur in a shorter time span, meaning less contrived activity to fill time. In other words, this spawns a legitimate year-round industry. Concerns about less time for player evaluation could be offset in part by coaches and others being able to engage in scouting and evaluation activities during the down time in season. OTAs and mini-camps would be folded into a six to eight week intensive preseason preparation period which would include training camp. Preseason games would be eliminated in their present form, though some version of controlled scrimmages for timing, evaluation and dress rehearsal purposes would be permitted.
What’s in it for the fan? It’s easy to guess how such a change would be received negatively by certain categories of fans. Casual fans might not like having to begin focusing in on the game during the summer months, while rabid fans may find the down time annoying. On the other hand, each group may love those qualities that the other hates. Depending upon your perspective, would this proposal be viewed as a step toward continued over-saturation or a step away from it? My bias is in favor of the devout (but not necessarily maniacal) fan. In fact, I believe part of the problem has been that, in their greed, the league has been too solicitous of the soft fan.
For many fans the best of both possible worlds is within reach. As I write this in April, the commencement of the new season is still nearly half a year away. When the distraction of the draft goes away, the signs of starvation will appear as those seeking meat will have to console themselves with the chew toys of OTAs, training camp and preseason contests. This proposal gets us back into the swing of things in about half the time, and yet also allows for the cultivation of life away from the game throughout the entirety of the season as well. There is space for outings, vacations, weddings and the joys of unscripted fall weekends without sacrifice.
Overall, I am betting that for ownership and management the potential benefits of expanded exposure, along with the possibility of accelerated globalization, will offset any concerns about increased costs surrounding salaries and roster sizes. Prudent marketing along with a stable, less traumatized work force leads to fewer legal and public relations problems off the field and a better quality product on it. This would lead to a couple of other changes, one necessary, the other a matter of taste.
The Necessity: the centralization and certification of medical care.
Like what is happening with officiating, the medical care of football players should adhere to rigid, agreed-upon professional and ethical standards. Although I’m not expert in such matters, I believe the league should take the following steps:
- Require that all team employees involved in these decisions (doctors, trainers and so forth), any similar actors working for individual players or the players union, and (mandatory) independent treatment personnel be subjected to a certification process. No more dermatologists making decisions on head injuries.
- There should be transparency related to league or team relationships with entities that could have an influence in the treatment of the athletes, such as pharmaceutical companies.
- Baselines should be established with players when they enter the league in terms of physical, psychological and other health conditions, with waivers being required to continue to work beyond the baseline thresholds.
The bet here is that the combination of better regulated medical treatment, the contractual incentives of management for keeping their investments optimally functional, the lack of urgency that comes from an extended season and larger rosters and the increased down time provided by the schedule will offset the impact of the longer season.
If, for example, Bud Dupree were in the proposed format last season, he would have participated in some of the early games, gone through injury and recovery, and returned for the remainder of the season, thus participating in more games without injured reserve status being necessary.
A Matter of Taste:
Any city in the league should be considered eligible for hosting a Super Bowl. The factor driving this decision is moving the event away from corporate carnival to ultimate fan event, meaning the entertainment, care and feeding of elites is not the first priority. That opens and democratizes how it can be structured. Besides, if you can have Super Bowls in Detroit and Minneapolis in the dead of winter, where can’t you have it?
What I propose is having the game be hosted on an eight-year cycle by one city from rotating host divisions, with a secondary pool of applicants representing cities that don’t have NFL teams (Salt Lake City, Portland, San Diego, St Louis, Honolulu, etc.) that would come into play if a suitable proposal is not received from the four priority cities. So, Pittsburgh would compete with the other AFC North teams, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland one year while in another year the NFC West, Phoenix, Los Angles, San Francisco and Seattle, would compete. The successful bid might be required to finance temporary or permanent alterations to their stadiums for all-weather operations.
But in a league where games will be hosted in the heat of July as well as February, that might be a wise investment in any case.
I would sever all official league ties and endorsements of fantasy football. The reasoning is both ethical and philosophical. In the first case, the connection to gambling, real or potential, is too strong. As for the latter, unlike other sports, football is somewhat uniquely reliant on interdependence of the players. It is important on offense, and absolutely essential on defense. Therefore, whatever fantasy is, it isn’t football and shouldn’t be allowed to receive any endorsement from the NFL and masquerade as such.
The challenge is to reform an industry that has more or less given itself over to corporatism, where the highest guiding principle is the greed-fueled pursuit of short term maximum profits, facilitated in great measure through the reduction of the talent that makes the game possible to disposable commodities, and the distortion of a noble, if somewhat brutal game into burlesque.
Business doesn’t have to be conducted this way. The Steelers are proof positive of the fact that quality relationships and human dignity are not mutually exclusive from success and profitability.