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Mark Cuban's NFL Warning Isn't Crazy: League at Risk of Overexposure

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Mark Cuban's NFL Warning Isn't Crazy: League at Risk of Overexposure
Carolyn Kaster/AP Images

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made headlines March 23 when he said he thinks "the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion," per Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com.

The NFL is the undisputed king of American professional sports, with designs on taking over the world. Television ratings, merchandise sales and annual revenue figures seem to climb every year, fueling 2013's huge profits and 2014's free-agency spending frenzy.

The trajectory of the NFL is up, up, up. It's racing toward NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's stated goal of $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027, per Daniel Kaplan of SportsBusiness Journal.

How could it all come crashing down before then?

Coming from a franchise owner in a rival sports league, Cuban's comments sound like hogwash.

 

Strip-Mining a Generation

There's no question the NFL has a death grip on this generation of sports fans.

Harris Interactive does an annual poll on America's favorite sport. The 2013 results were released in January, and they weren't surprising: 35 percent named pro football their favorite. That's an increase of 11 percent since 1985, when the poll began.

The popularity of the NFL in the 1970s, '80s and '90s was built around time. It had a one-day-per-week game schedule that perfectly fit our increasingly busy lives and intense stop-start action made for television—our brain-dead break from those lives.

This shows in the numbers: Harris named "parents with child under 18" as one of the three demographic groups most gung-ho about pro football; 42 percent of these Internet-at-work, busy-at-home parents called the NFL their favorite sport.

Jessica Hill/Associated Press

As the generation, which came of age during the NFL's 1980s and '90s heyday, reaches its peak earning years, the NFL is working diligently to siphon its hard-earned cash. From in-stadium Internet and craft beer to its own cable television network, the league hasn't missed an opportunity to wring money from these fans.

In fact, there aren't many more opportunities left in America.

"We've pretty much tapped out the American [market]," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe back in 2012. "For our game to continue to grow and be special we have to expand our fan base...going to England and playing there and developing the game [made sense]."

Just hours after Cuban's comments, the NFL Network's Albert Breer tweeted NFL owners are considering a fourth International Series game in 2015.

At what point will the NFL's changes designed to "grow" the game alienate those who loved it as it was?

 

Losing the Next Generation

"Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered," said Cuban, echoing an old tenet of business investors. "And they're getting hoggy." Cuban wasn't done offering Goodell and the NFL owners free advice: "When you've got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That's rule number one of business."

There's plenty of evidence it's already turning on the NFL.

Back in 2012, Kevin Clark of The Wall Street Journal noted league-wide attendance had dropped 4.5 percent since 2007. The NFL has responded by remodeling ticket pricing, offering more amenities and even loosening its legendarily iron-clad blackout rule.

Nevertheless, ticket revenue remains flat:

The Wall Street Journal

That's been more than made up for by broadcast revenue, but the NFL's long since strip-mined the at-home experience, too.

An informal tabulation made by Dana Jennings of The New York Times revealed there are over 100 television commercials during every NFL game, many of which aren't nearly as open-minded and family-friendly as the image the NFL likes to present.

LM Otero/Associated Press

David Biderman of The Wall Street Journal once calculated the average 174-minute NFL game broadcast contains just 11 minutes of action.

Is it any wonder, then, that my kids—avid football fans, all—can't bear watching an entire "boring" game?

 

A Bubble About to Burst

Cuban made his fortune during the heady dot-com bubble days, when Yahoo bought his Broadcast.com business for $5.9 billion in Yahoo stock, per CNN.com. Cuban later told Lucy McCauley of Fast Company magazine he knew he had to immediately balance that stock-based fortune with other investments, in case the bubble burst.

"After we sold Broadcast.com, I hedged my stock with synthetic indexes, in case the market cratered in the six months before I could hedge my actual Yahoo shares," Cuban said. "It cost me $20 million, but I protected what I had. Todd Wagner and I had a credo: 'Pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered.'"

That bit of wisdom made Cuban one of the few "paper billionaires" of the late 1990s and early 2000s to retain actual wealth after the market crash. He clearly sees signs of an impending crash with the NFL's popularity, too.

Brian Blanco/Associated Press

The data is right there in the Harris poll: One of the bottom three demographic groups for pro football fandom is "Echo Boomers," more popularly called millennials.

Only 31 percent of "Echo Boomers" named pro football their favorite sport. The popularity drop-off between today's parents and the young singles behind them is the same as football's overall increase from 1985 to 2014!

Does Mark Cuban have a point?

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As Goodell and the NFL push forward with unpopular ideas like expanded Thursday Night Football packages, more games on Monday and Saturday night, international expansion, an 18-game regular season and a larger playoff field, they aren't hedging their bets—they're doubling down.

The NFL is too big to truly implode; even a dramatic decline in popularity wouldn't downgrade its status as America's most popular sport. Cuban's words, as ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert wrote, contain a bit of "wishful thinking."

Even so, the warning signs are there on the horizon—and it wouldn't be the first time Cuban rightly pulled back while others led their investors right off a cliff.

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