A Look at the NFL Over the Next Twenty Years
The future ain’t what it used to be. ~ Yogi Berra
What happens to the pro game now that the former players have settled their concussion lawsuit against the owners?
Although the owners did not admit any liability for concussion injuries to former players, $765 million suggests there was plenty of reason for concern. Increased efforts by the owners over the last few years to reduce player injuries also speaks to mounting fears for the overall health of the game of football from Pop Warner to the pros.
The desire to “grow the business” of the NFL also remains strong; no doubt some owners will declare victory and redouble efforts for an eighteen game schedule and international play, but player safety is paramount. What changes might fans expect in the NFL over the next two decades as a result of this settlement?
Increased Use of Technology Improves Player Safety
For years, the auto industry fought efforts by consumer safety groups to require air bags in automobiles. Eventually the government forced the industry to implement this safety change in automobiles and thousands of lives have been saved. Although there may be one or two “ruthless bastards” among the ranks of the owners, most of them are good men.
Collectively, the owners may be slightly more mercenary than most, and perhaps tougher and smarter than the population at large. Definitely smarter, many have built billion dollar empires and the success of the NFL speaks for itself. Certainly the owners do not want to destroy their own product. And they seem more likely to pay for safety, within reason, after the concussion settlement, particularly if they can keep the government out of the industry.
One change that is long overdue involves the helmet. Technological developments in materials processing offer a range of safety innovations, some of which should find their way into the NFL in the next twenty years. The air bag concept for collisions has been proven. A similar technology, let’s call it the “bubble wrap” protective shield, could significantly reduce head injuries in the NFL.
The idea is to attach a bubble wrap-like protective layer both inside and outside of the current helmet. The effectiveness of the new material (which could contain air but other designs may contain a liquid) would occur in part because the player receiving a helmet -to – helmet blow is protected by a quadruple layer of protection. Because every player has an interior and exterior layer of this absorbent material, every hit has a quadruple level of protection.
The fashion conscious need not be concerned. Although changes to the NFL helmet can greatly effect tradition and have been known to start small wars, the new helmets could look very good with the fashion talent the NFL can purchase. Perhaps the helmets would look something like the futuristic Predator. In any case, safety rules the day and technology will aid in the quest for a safer game.
Prospects for improved safety via technology: Very Likely.
Player safety may involve less game time: The Personal Bye
Any possibility for an eighteen or twenty game schedule will be linked to player safety, with compensation following closely behind. The owners can present one offer to the players association which guarantees the status quo yet still permits an expanded schedule; another offer would also likely improve safety immediately but may be less popular with players and fans.
The personal bye would restrict the number of games played by all players to an agreed number, say sixteen. The owners would appear to agree to the players’ demands that they play no more games than the current sixteen game schedule plus the playoffs. The concept of restricting playing time is valid and may enter into future safety negotiations between players and owners. Other sports already use playing time restrictions. Baseball has pitcher counts, hockey and basketball count ice and court time, boxing has mandatory time restrictions between fights and soccer has the card system, which removes players from games for dangerous fouls.
There are a number of issues concerning mandatory playing time restrictions and many details would require tough negotiations before any passage of a “Personal Bye System” for the NFL.
In the first place, any increase in roster size would increase payroll and associated carrying costs. Although jobs would be created, a plus for the NFL on the good corporate citizen front, current players would lose playing time. When it comes to job security, NFL players are as insecure as sixteen year olds worrying about a date to the Homecoming Dance. There would be fear and resistance by the NFLPA, and money would likely be the only incentive for the players to authorize the concept of a personal bye.
Still, if the owners want the eighteen or twenty game season badly enough, they’ll pony up enough money to convince the players to accept the proposal.
Prospects for the implementation of a Personal Bye system: Maybe, depends on money and possibility of government intervention.
A Bigger Field
A larger field improves safety but changes the game dramatically. Many Baltimore fans proudly recall the Baltimore Stallions Grey Cup season. The Canadian game was different at first but we came to appreciate nuances of a bigger field. It could happen if safety issues are not addressed in any other way.
Prospects for a larger field: Very unlikely.
Rule changes have been a part of professional football since its inception. With respect to safety, the key changes will involve attempts by the league to identify an acceptable level of violence. In 1905, nineteen young men died playing college football. It took the intervention of President Teddy Roosevelt, however, before rules were adopted to make the game safer.
The owners do not want government intervention into “their” sport so rule changes will keep coming in an effort to make the sport safe. Finding the sweet spot between safety and an acceptable level of violence is the trick. Fans like violence and football’s popularity is closely tied to its physicality. Hockey owners have refused to eliminate fistfights from their sport because the fans, and players, want to keep the fights and fans pay the freight. The rinks are smaller than in Europe and Russia for the same reason, US fans would rather see hitting than skating.
Prospects for more rule changes: 100%
The owners have to be concerned for the future of the game at its entry level. Parents are steering their kids to safer sports at the Pop Warner and middle school levels. Even high schools are seeing a reduction in tryouts for football teams. The US football industry still produces more than enough players for the pro game but a forward looking industry will take note and begin to address these issues sooner rather than later.
The NFL has begun to act with its “Heads Up” program and exercise marketing campaigns. This is a good start but, ultimately, a safer game at the youth level is imperative for the continued health of the game.
One excellent marketing device that is currently missing from the American football landscape is the idea of a national football convention to display safety, coaching, electronic and other developments of the sport. The NFL should enter this vacuum and sponsor a national convention.
NFLFest, a national convention for the football industry, could be held in conjunction with the draft in May. The NFL is already looking for ways to expand draft coverage and a national convention is the perfect vehicle to broadcast the NFL’s safety message as well as present other new football related products such as games, movies, books, memorabilia, etc.
The NFL could hold the first round of the draft in New York but move rounds 2-7 to whatever convention city is selected.
Prospects for Continued Safety Marketing: 100%
The Twenty Game Season
Acceptance of a Personal Bye System by the owners and players will allow an increase in games well beyond the current sixteen. As long as individual players are not put at risk beyond sixteen or even fourteen games, the season could expand to twenty or more games. Money is the key. If roster size must be expanded to sixty-five or seventy players than the salary cap will have to rise. If the owners realize a significant increase in TV revenue, then a raise to the players will follow.
But guaranteed minimum salaries and other player perks may be modified, along with other changes like elimination of the practice squad. The devil is in the details but if the concept of a personal bye is agreed upon then expanding the schedule without any corresponding reduction in player safety seems attainable.
The owners must view the players as partners, or at least valuable employees. The players will be concerned about any change that might reduce their significance in the game. A larger roster could result in a reduction in importance per player. Former Dallas Cowboy General Manager Tex Schramm’s famous statement, “we’re the ranchers and you’re the cattle, and we can always get more cattle” would not help any attempt to introduce the concept of the personal bye into negotiations for an expanded season.
Prospects for an 18 or 20 game season: Likely
The owners may accept less revenue on the front end of a collective bargaining agreement if they win the right to play two games per team overseas. This flexibility could be extremely helpful in efforts to expand the league overseas. If the preseason is eliminated and the NFL went to a 20 game season, then the US fans could continue to pay for and receive a ten game home season ticket package but all are regular season games. Perhaps the league would arrange for two controlled scrimmages during preseason camps, but no preseason games. The players union has won a reduction in hitting during practice and the game has not fallen apart so it appears that the league would survive an elimination of the preseason.
How might the NFL market overseas?
One possibility is the “every team” season ticket package, a promotion not yet attempted by the NFL.
Prospects for International Play: Likely
The “Every Team, Every Dream” Season Ticket Package
If the NFL goes to a twenty game schedule in 2016, it will have will have 32 additional games to market (former preseason games, 16 per week for 4 weeks, distributed as 32 for US fans and 32 for international games). One way to market these games would be to emphasize that the purchaser would see every team over a two-year period.
The league selects four sites, London, Mexico, Washington, DC and Los Angeles. Washington DC is available because of its commitment to build a national stadium at the RFK site for the Olympics. Marketing research reveals that London and Mexico could sustain demand for the NFL but Tokyo and Germany are not quite ready. One stunning result of the Every Team, Every Dream research is the finding of immense demand for this ticket package in the US. Fans are willing to pay ticket prices approaching those of Super Bowl levels for a chance to see every NFL team over a two-year period.
By creating season ticket packages of eight games each in all four cities, packages that include games involving all 32 NFL teams over two years, the NFL has discovered an untapped demand for its product. This new season ticket package is fortuitous because cities like Jacksonville continue to lag in season ticket sales. The NFL is contemplating selling top-end seats of the Every Team, Every Dream season ticket package at $100,000 per a two-year cycle!
Prospects for an Every Team season ticket: Possible but not likely anytime soon. Still, EVERY TEAM EVERY DREAM – What a cool season ticket to have.
How much would you be willing to pay for the chance to see every team in the NFL over a two-year period?
Who can say what the future has in store!
Written by Rob Ward