The N.o F.un L.eague

Once upon a time, when Pete Rozelle was still commissioner, there was a brash young QB named Jim McMahon. McMahon came into the league after a college career that saw him rewrite the records (in a number of ways) at his university, the conservative BYU. As the QB of the Chicago Bears, he was the leader and chief troublemaker of a fun-loving but tough team on its way to a Superbowl. Of his habits, McMahon’s penchant for headbands that advertised products or displayed messages was probably his least dangerous. Rozelle saw the use of the headband to advertise as a breach in the NFL’s exclusive control over media partners and “official products”, and promptly ordered the young QB to cease and desist.

At the next game, McMahon wore a headband labeled “Rozelle”. The commissioner simply laughed and remarked, “nice gag”. That, as they say, was then. The NFL really is becoming the no fun league, and its executives seem to be on a mission to use up all of the football watching public’s good will. The rational middle is…really struggling to be rational.

I am a huge football fan. I have, for many years, followed the sport religiously in print and on television. A great deal of money has been spent by my household acquiring magazines, expanded cable, and video games all with the intention of feeding my addiction. In this, I am not alone. Billions of dollars are spent by fans annually playing fantasy football, watching television, playing video games, and buying memorabilia. NFL franchises have also pulled up a chair at the all you can eat municipal bond feast, where helpless cities and counties are blackmailed with the loss of their team if they don’t cough up several hundred million to build the infrastructure for the billionaire that owns the team.

The insult to the injury for all of this, is that the league is not satisfied. What follows is a list of steps, taken by the league in recent years in the name of “corporate growth” that threatens the game by virtue of the abuse of its fans (customers):

  1. Publicly funded stadiums. Not alone in this offense, the NFL is nonetheless, guilty of blackmail. What other business demands money on this scale for the construction of its sole capital asset? I would support a federal law banning the use of public money for any venue built for use by a professional sports franchise. Such a law would level the playing field.
  2. Exclusive deals with satellite. I don’t like satellite TV, so the NFL does not want my business. Ridiculous! The NFL does not sell a prestige product, so the notion of limiting its distribution channels is flat out stupid. Somewhere in the league office in New York, there has to be a marketing MBA that is trying to change this.
  3. The NFL Network. While the idea of a fully committed network for football junkies is not a bad one, the notion of restricting access in other channels to support this one demonstrates how poorly the league understands marketing. This is a good idea done in by pure greed on the league’s part. The summer the network spent covering the “Terrill Owens Saga”, complete with the whiny and unprofessional Adam Schefter’s opinion rants masquerading as reporting, told the audience all it needed to know about its strategic plan… i.e. there wasn’t one.
  4. Exclusive deal for Madden NFL to the exclusion of the very competent software done by 2K studios. When NFL 2K was in production, customers could get the new game of their choice every year for $30 bucks…now, as a monopoly, Madden will cost you $60. The price has doubled in five years. Once again, the league (with help from the players union here) tells its customers to suck eggs.
  5. Fantasy football crackdown. The league is doing all it can to control all fantasy football games. It (and the union again) wants the profits from any use of the player’s names. This is an enterprise that has no chance of threatening cash flow for players or the league, and actually tends to drive merchandise and TV viewing; but again, greed is driving the league.
  6. NFL films. Most of today’s NFL fans grew up watching NFL films productions. The “voice of God”, the late John Facenda, and his able replacement, the late Harry Kalas, were combined with fantastic music to create powerful productions that reinforced our dreams of the league. The NFL has steadily eroded the budget at NFL films, and tried to scuttle the excellent “Inside the NFL” series.

This league is operating under the delusion that it can’t be replaced. Major League Baseball was once the national pastime, so I am not sure what fantasy the executives in New York are living in, but they need to wake up. I am not advocating a walk-out or fan-strike, I am simply reminding a big business that even loyal customers can get tired of bad service and walk away.

There are just too many other choices these days…

The rational middle is ready to hear angry football fans…