Bullying. Racism. Fraud. Domestic violence. DUI. Depression. Dementia. Suicide. Murder.
Welcome to the NFL in 2013, where the TV lights have never been brighter, the on-field product has never been glitzier and the off-field picture, it seems, has never been darker.
At every level of the NFL, from players to owners, appalling stories and shocking scandals have rocked the league. The misdeeds of professional footballers aren't just sports news—they are news.
Former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez dealt the league the biggest blow to its image and integrity when he was arrested and charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd.
In the last two weeks, the Miami Dolphins' entire organization has faced a media firestorm following the harassment, hazing and bullying of Jonathan Martin by fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito and several other teammates.
The league itself was sued by a group of 4,500 former players who accused the NFL of "concealing the dangers of concussions and rushing injured players back onto the field while glorifying and profiting from the kind of bone-jarring hits that make for spectacular highlight-reel footage," according to a story from NFL.com. The league settled with the players for $765 million, which has also been widely criticized for being too low of a figure.
This week, it was revealed that former stars Tony Dorsett, Joe DeLamielleure and Leonard Marshall are showing signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a serious brain disorder.
The league has also dealt with DUIs from multiple Broncos executives as well as one from the Browns. It has endured a handful of player arrests, including one for an assault weapons charge. Finally, it is still dealing with the continued embarrassment of having the franchise based in our nation's capital named with an ethnic slur.
For a league that prides itself on a clean, family-friendly product, the nonstop stream of terrible news seems like, well, terrible news.
Is the NFL's future in doubt? Has the stream of negativity associated with the game on the gridiron curbed folks' fandom?
Not a chance.
America's TV Show
Throughout the 20th century, baseball was described as "America's pastime." We may still love baseball, but we no longer pass our time playing and watching the game of our grandfathers.
The NFL isn't just the king of American sports, it's America's favorite TV show. Even meaningless matchups between struggling squads draw massive ratings.
The Week 7 edition of Monday Night Football was an unappealing contest between the then-1-4 Minnesota Vikings and the then-0-5 New York Giants. The reality was even worse than the hype: A low-scoring gaffe-fest I called 2013's most unwatchable game.
That stinker still pulled higher overnight ratings than Game 1 of the World Series, per Paulsen of Sports Media Watch. Paulsen put together a stunning historical chart of NBA Finals and World Series ratings against the Super Bowl:
These world-conquering numbers can't be reached by winning over traditional sports fans. The NFL has successfully marketed itself to casual and non-sports fans by the millions.
Not Your Father's NFL
According to Amanda Kondolojy of TV by the Numbers, 108.4 million people tuned in to Week 1 of the NFL. Sunday Night Football, per USA Today's For the Win, is the top-rated television show among women aged 18-34. It's tied with The Voice for No. 1 among women 18-49.
Besides the NFL's well-known "A Crucial Catch" campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer, the league is reaching out to women in many ways. The NFL surveyed female fans about their game-day experience; David Broughton of the Sports Business Journal compiled the eye-opening results.
After angering many women—including the Houston Chronicle's Stephanie Stradley—with its unpopular clear-bag policy, the NFL reached out to female bloggers and social-media mavens with an #NFLAllClear hashtag. Not only did league representatives clarify the policy and defuse fears, they gave away prizes.
As the NFL actively and successfully reaches out to fans of all genders, races and ages, it could hardly get more popular. In fact, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told Sky Sports' Neil Reynolds that the NFL is "starting to tap out" the U.S. market.
Is the Well Running Dry?
The NFL hauls in about $10 billion in annual revenue and is hoping to bring in $25 billion by 2027, per Daniel Kaplan of the Sports Business Journal.
The NFL can't reach that massive number just by selling tickets.
NFL attendance has been shockingly flat over the last decade. As Kaplan reported, total NFL ticket sales have hovered between 17 million and 17.5 million since 2004.
NFL teams have been aggressively adding value to their on-site, game-day experience with new stadiums, luxury amenities and premium food and drink options. However, fans can only afford so much. Does every NFL city really have 60,000-plus consumers of big-ticket experiences?
The NFL is making a killing in the merchandising and apparel market. However, when tween-girl clothier Justice is already stocking trendy, sequined, NFL-licensed outfits, that market doesn't have much room to grow.
If, as Kraft said, the American market is tapped out, the NFL will have to look beyond America.
All the World's a Stage
The NFL's made no secret of its designs on taking over the world, in a surprisingly literal way.
Kaplan spoke with Eric Grubman, executive vice president of NFL ventures and business operations, and found the NFL doesn't just view itself as an American sports league, but a global product and brand.
Not only will the league compete head-to-head with global sports properties like the English Premier League, Kaplan wrote, but "consumer product companies such as Procter & Gamble, Walt Disney and Apple."
Commissioner Roger Goodell is targeting London for NFL expansion. Bill Williamson of ESPN reported Goodell told UK fans he wants teams in both London and Los Angeles, "but it doesn't matter which comes first."
As I wrote this summer, the NFL can build the future it envisions with multiple expansion teams, multiple international teams and an expanded regular-season schedule and playoffs.
With more teams in more countries playing more games, the NFL can charge much higher rights fees for its television product. The league can then charge those fees over and over again in every football-crazy nation.
A Good Hard Look in the Mirror
In the English Premier League, if the wrong player makes the wrong facial expression at the wrong time, it can fuel days of speculation, analysis and debate at media outlets across the globe.
The 2010 World Cup Final drew a staggering 3.2 billion television viewers, per FIFA.com. With the world's top soccer leagues boasting hundreds of millions of fanatics over every country on Earth, that collective passion drives incredible revenue—and breathless, ravenous media coverage.
If the NFL builds passionate international fans, stories like Richie Incognito's bullying of Jonathan Martin won't go away; they'll be even bigger news.
With the NFL's fanbase larger and more passionate than ever, the media will reflect its audience. We know more than we've ever known about our favorite players and teams, but it's only whetted our appetite. Stories like these have always been around the NFL, they've just never garnered this much attention.
These negative stories aren't a sign of trouble for the NFL. They're a sign the league's plan is working perfectly.
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