5 Lessons the NFL Should Learn from the Failures of Other Sports
There is no doubt that right now the NFL is the biggest and best sports product around. With an unmatched audience, enthusiasm and revenues—all other leagues come in a distant second.
With that said, the NFL is far from perfect. It has plenty of mistakes to learn from its rival leagues. From improved safety to more honest communication, these tweaks could make a very positive impact for the league.
While none of these changes would impact the league or its rules substantially, it would likely ensure the sport's popularity among its most important group—the fans.
Here are five lessons the NFL can learn from where other sports have failed.
1) Encourage Player Safety
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Among the myriad problems that have plagued boxing (in addition to a confusing title-belt system and awful promotion), are the disastrous health effects that have afflicted the former stars of the sport.
It's not a ringing endorsement of the sweet science to see the best boxers showing signs of mental and physical damage, reducing them to a shell of their former selves.
First things first: Football is a dangerous game. Players don't have to play football. If they don't want the injury risk, they could play a different sport.
This research presents very serious questions:
1) How long will fans accept watching the game of football, as they see their heroes destroyed physically and mentally?
2) How many future pros will move to different sports (author Malcolm Gladwell suggested lacrosse) as a result of this research?
3) How much will the league and its owners spend in either legal fees or settlements, as a result of upcoming lawsuits about player safety?
There are no easy answers in handling these questions. However, the league should be forthcoming with players and fans on how they are trying to make things safer.
Whether further sanctions on appropriate hits to mandating more advanced helmets for all players (something the league hasn't done yet), the league must be more proactive in dealing with these risks.
2) Create Consistency in League Punishments
While the NFL has attempted to crack down on dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits, its enforcement of rules and its disciplinary explanations have left a lot to be desired.
Some players have found themselves constantly suspended, while others have seen their punishments limited solely to fines.
The NHL had a similar problem, which suspensions and fines were in the rulebook, but unclear in implementation.
The league has found a great way to tackle the issue: Video reviews.
The league's Senior Vice President of Player Safety, former All-Star Brendan Shanahan, has done videos posted to YouTube to explain the decisions that were made by the league in disciplining its players. In addition to showing the play, the corresponding rule was explained and the punishment was announced. No room for second guessing.
Likewise, I think the NFL would find a lot of fan outrage would subside if it were to implement a similar system. In addition to clarifying what was wrong, it could put to rest what the deciding factors were in the league's disciplinary action.
3) Tweak the All-Star Game Until It Works
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The NFL should rework the Pro Bowl. This year, the league's All-Star Game was beyond awful. Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed his disappointment with the game, saying that he could cancel the game if improvements weren't made.
Assuming the Pro Bowl will never be able to capture the casual enjoyment of the NBA All-Star Weekend (there is no NFL equivalent to the dunk contest), they have two options—based on the work of the MLB and NHL.
The folks at the MLB (incorrectly assuming that game results would up urgency) gave it a stupid prize: Home field advantage for the World Series. I'm not sure you'll find too many people who will say that's a smart way of rewarding months of baseball.
It's a gimmick. A bad gimmick.
However, the NFL would be smart to follow the footsteps of the NHL's All Star Game. Instead of changing the stakes, they changed the rosters. While they went through several iterations of these changes, to limited success—they have found the perfect set-up: Schoolyard-style roster picks.
I can only imagine this could fire up player interest in the game. A two-hour selection special would be appointment television. The new configurations would be a fan's dream, and might even flare up some competitive spirit among players.
It's a gimmick. A good gimmick.
4) If You're Going to Move the Team, Be Upfront About It
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If the NFL wants to move a team to Los Angeles (or London?), they need to be upfront.
They should say what teams are on the hot list to move, why they are on said list and what kind of timetable these teams would be under to keep their franchise alive in their current city.
The NBA failed in this regard miserably, as the long-standing Seattle Supersonics were moved to the smaller market Oklahoma City (to become the Thunder)—with little regard for its long-standing fans.
Most disappointingly, was the league's apparent co-signing of the move. The effort to paint Seattle, the Key Arena and the fan support as inadequate, which is highlighted prominently by ESPN's Bill Simmons. It wasn't true (the documentary Sonicsgate recapped the controversy perfectly).
The franchise's move has left a bad taste in many fans of the league.
As an example, a buddy of mine from the Seattle area insists that he will not watch any NBA games as a result of the move—at least until the area gets a new team (there are some discussions on the city building a new combined basketball/hockey arena).
5) Embrace Historic Venues
There's money to be made in luxury seats and personal seat licenses. The NFL is following a model set by most NBA teams, in that new stadiums are a must—instead of sticking to classic arenas.
Teams like the Dallas Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts, the Arizona Cardinals and the New York Giants and Jets have built monstrous new stadiums—sacrificing tradition for the almighty ticket revenues.
Other teams like the San Francisco 49ers are well on the way to building massive new stadiums of their own. While some teams have kept their traditional stadiums alive (think the Green Bay Packers Lambeau Field), these are exceptions to the rule.
The league should instead try to follow the model set by MLB teams like the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs (and not like the New York Yankees or Minnesota Twins). These stadiums provide a consistent visual link between the past and present of the game.
Instead of running from older stadiums, money is spent to renovate these facilities to take them into the next century.
One can only hope the NFL can keep some of its longer-standing stadiums alive.