How Roger Goodell Can Realistically Improve the NFL Product
The NFL is a dominant force in sports, the media and even with its apparel. One would think the NFL has it figured out and there wouldn't be a whole lot that commissioner Roger Goodell could do to improve the product, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
There are dozens of things Goodell can do to improve the NFL product over the next couple of years. The following is just a sampling and runs over 2,000 words. Certain rule changes are somewhat outside Goodell's purview but could be also relevant.
It's not Goodell's style to rush big changes, but some changes are long overdue. The following are just things Goodell can do over the next few years that can drastically improve the NFL product, both on and off the field.
The NFL approved Rule Proposal 9 at the NFL Annual Meeting in March, which will allow referees to consult with the officiating department in New York during replay reviews. It was a great first step, but it stops short of a completely centralized replay system.
Part of the problem is that it leaves the referee responsible for the final decision. The referee still has to get under the hood, where he will talk to the official in the booth and the New York command center in order to go over the play from different angles. This is terribly inefficient and unnecessary.
Referees are highly unlikely to go against the advice of the New York command center because the people there—namely NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino—are also responsible for their performance evaluations. Chances are that after a few weeks under the new system, referees are simply going to be going under the hood to get a decision.
A fully centralized replay system—a system in which the New York command center renders the decision and relays it simultaneously to the referee, the official in the booth and the television networks—is much more efficient. The amount of time needed for a review would be a fraction of what it will take under the new system and would be light years faster than the old system.
A few individuals, such as Blandino, will also make the majority of calls, ensuring the rules are subject to as few interpretations as possible. Added consistency on reviews will cut down on complaints from fans about unfair treatment by officials and shift fan scorn from the referees to the league office.
Under the new system, fans may blame referees when it's the command center "suggesting" how to make a call. The new system leaves the referee responsible for the final call but still manages to muddy the water.
A fully centralized review system would speed up the game, result in more consistent calls and nearly eliminate blown calls altogether. For the good of the game, Goodell should push for a fully centralized review system immediately.
Modernize/Replace the Chains
The NFL consists of 2,000 athletes who look like they were created in a lab, training facilities fit for a king and stadiums that cost well over a billion dollars. Yet first downs are still measured by a length of chain that would run less than $15 at any hardware store in America.
Probably the most outdated part of the game is the chain gang. It's one of the only things that has been virtually untouched over the years. Even the down markers are still mechanical instead of digital.
Countless first downs and games have likely been lost over the years due to the imprecise nature of this method. The individuals working the chains are probably very good at their jobs, but moving chains is just not a good way to measure first downs in the fast-paced, high-stakes game of football.
Laser technology has existed for years to more accurately and quickly measure first downs, but the NFL has been reluctant to embrace it. According to the Associated Press, Alan Amron developed the laser technology with the financial backing of the late Pat Summerall and met with the NFL in 2003 and 2009.
“The NFL right now has made it very clear to us that they didn't want to eliminate the chains, but augmenting them wouldn't be a bad idea,” said Amron to the AP.
Goodell should push forward with the plan to augment the chains, with the ultimate goal of totally replacing them in the future. Laser lines on the field would not only assist the players, but also enhance the fan experience in stadium and at home.
Ultimately, sensors could instantaneously determine if a team got a first down after a spot, avoiding delays and losses of momentum on late-game drives. These systems could also be automated, thus eliminating any errors getting chains set as teams run down the field.
Sort out Remaining Stadium Issues in Oakland and San Diego
Two teams in California still play in monoliths built nearly five decades ago. One stadium—O.co Coliseum in Oakland—has sewage issues and a baseball diamond for half of the football season. The other—Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego—floods regularly.
This should be unacceptable to a league that brings in many millions in revenue every year. No team should have to play on a baseball diamond, but the dilapidated field conditions pale in comparison to the fan experience at these locations.
While the NFL provides up to $200 million in financing for new stadiums, it leaves it to the individual teams to work out the details with local municipalities. Increasing the amount of financing available to the teams in California would be a start, but it's about time the NFL provides additional non-monetary assistance to teams needing a stadium upgrades.
The NFL product in these locations is poor, and Goodell needs to do something about it. According to Forbes, the Raiders were last in the league in revenue, and the Chargers were 27th in 2013. The Raiders are worth less than half that of the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and Washington Redskins despite being located in the sixth-largest media market in the country.
Issues in Buffalo and St. Louis could also use additional attention from the league office, but the stadium issues in California have been ongoing for years now. If the NFL can't assist these teams in getting new stadiums built soon, it might be worth considering the relocation of those teams.
Leverage Los Angeles
Sometimes, all that a company needs to do to improve its product is get it into the hands of certain "star" customers. Yet the NFL doesn't seem to be in any rush to get back to Los Angeles—the country's second-largest media market and entertainment capital of the world.
The NFL could make buckets of money in Los Angeles but has resisted serious talks of relocating teams or expansion. Maybe the league is simply holding out hope that the teams that want new stadiums will be able to get them, which would open up investment in Los Angeles for everyone and not just one or two teams.
There are multiple ways that the NFL can exploit the Los Angeles market, but Goodell needs to spearhead an effort to do so sooner rather than later. The potential growth possibilities of the NFL in Los Angeles are astronomical, so every day that the NFL isn't moving toward exploiting that market is a missed opportunity to improve its product.
Goodell needs to act before a stadium-needy team like the Raiders tries to force his hand. The Raiders are nearing a deadline on getting something done in Oakland, and the Davis family has been a thorn in the NFL's side before.
"I would probably say (negotiations are in) the 11th hour," Davis told Ian Rapoport of NFL.com in May regarding the status of talks with the city of Oakland. "It's always the 11th hour because we've been waiting a long time, been waiting a long time on this project. If it doesn't happen, then we have to start looking at the other options."
Don’t be surprised if at least a few of those other options are in Los Angeles. If the NFL wants to control and create maximum benefit from Los Angeles, it may need to beat the less desirable outcomes to the punch.
Modernize the Draft
The NFL draft is one of the league's biggest events of the year, but for all the glitz and glam of the event, it's terribly inefficient and slow. If Goodell wants to improve the event and sell it to a wider audience, the draft needs to be efficient and much faster—especially in the later rounds.
The current process involves teams calling in their picks to their representatives in New York at Radio City Music Hall. They write the names on the cards and give them to an NFL official for verification before they land in the presenters' hands. If the NFL wants to take the event on the road—and it should—this process just won't do.
In a world where real-time information on Twitter flows nearly unrestricted, draft picks should be announced as soon as the teams makes their decisions. There is no way to truly be surprised by a pick under the current system because tip picks are inevitably retweeted or posted on various media sites prior to the official announcements.
Goodell has to take matters into his own hands and speed up the process. Using voice calls is just too slow in today's world.
"It's like Paul Revere telling you who is coming to your town," said NFL Network host Rich Eisen, via David Barron of the Houston Chronicle (subscription required).
Everyone knows a better solution is an Internet-based system that feeds directly into the television broadcasts. The NFL may even need to slow things down somehow, but at least it wouldn't be so slow.
"The draft could be done via encrypted computer connections, where each team points and clicks like a fantasy draft, and the whole thing would be over in two hours," said Eisen. "Instead, it's a television show."
It's a television show, but it can be a better television show and a spectator event if Goodell makes the proper adjustments. By modernizing the draft, the NFL only needs a stable Internet connection wherever it chooses to take the event.
The NFL could host every round in a different city across the country if it wanted. Maybe the entire draft rotates to different locations every year and cities bid for it like the Super Bowl. Maybe the NFL starts selling tickets to the festivities.
A bigger, faster and more flexible draft would help the NFL further dominate televisions year-round.
The NFL relaxed the blackout policy a couple seasons ago. Teams can now decide what percentage of non-premium tickets—85 percent or higher—must be sold for the game to be on local television. Teams or sponsors can also buy unsold tickets for 34 cents on the dollar during the regular season to avoid local blackouts, per ProFootballTalk.
Teams like the Oakland Raiders didn't have any blackouts last season despite only filling their stadium to 80 percent of capacity, according to ESPN data. NFL teams seem to be moving away from blacking out games in local markets, but the problem hasn't disappeared entirely.
Three playoffs games last January needed 24-hour extensions to sell out. The Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals and Green Bay Packers all needed the extension, per CBS Sports. Teams often have to lean on local and national sponsors to ensure games are on television.
Many stadiums are funded at least in part with taxpayer dollars. Forcing those taxpayers to hand over hundreds, if not thousands, of their hard-earned dollars for the right to watch their local teams play is asinine.
It won't matter which side prevails because the NFL usually gets what it wants one way or another. Goodell can render the issue moot simply by ensuring the league has zero blackouts in 2014. With only two in 2013, this should be an attainable goal to improve the NFL product and quiet the critics of the rule.
Improve the In-Stadium Experience
One of the problems the NFL has with the in-stadium experience is that it's impractical for families. According to FanCostExperience.com, it cost a family of four an average of $459.65 to attend a game in 2013.
The NFL needs to encourage more families to attend games, but the prices are prohibitive. One solution would be to have lower-priced tickets for kids. It's very important for the NFL to secure the next generation of fans if it wants to remain the dominant sport, and one way is getting kids to fall in love with the sport at a young age.
The other problem is that many NFL venues aren't family friendly. The NFL needs to tighten up the conduct in the stands and be more willing to take corrective action, even against season ticket holders. If the NFL has to restrict alcohol sales until fans can learn to behave, so be it.
Outside of creating a family-friendly environment, NFL stadiums need to get more interactive and tech savvy. Wi-Fi is not universally available in all stadiums yet, although it's getting there.
The NFL also needs to learn how to leverage this technology to enhance the fan experience at the stadium. That could be with instant highlights on smart phones or exclusive in-stadium-only access to on-field audio.
According to Daniel Kaplan of SportsBusiness Journal, the NFL is already experimenting with the idea of putting microphones on players and coaches and letting fans listen in. This is the type of novel concept that can improve the NFL's in-stadium product enough to rival the at-home experience.
Goodell is already working to improve the in-stadium experience, but he's too caught up in the day-to-day minutia of player conduct and battles with the NFLPA over HGH testing to commit enough time to it. Goodell has a good start in many areas, but it's about time to see some real movement on some of these issues.