Keeping the NFL On Top: Three Suggestions

Where does the NFL go from here?

The NFL is pretty much the most popular sports league in the world, with the possible exception of a couple of soccer (futbol) leagues. In terms of attendance, revenues and recognition, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

The problem is that when you get to the top of the ladder, how do you continue to grow your product?

The NFL took over in the United States from Major League Baseball. When exactly isn’t quite clear, though was is crystal is that the jig was up by the 1994 MLB strike which was the first in history to take out the World Series. It happened slowly, though one could easily point to the NFL’s collective bargaining with television in the 1960’s was what started things. Now the NFL is, in addition to being the top sport, the top rated television show in the United States.

And that is what the NFL has truly become: a television show. Though tens of thousands still flock to the games each and every fall Sunday, millions more at home hit their couches to watch the telecasts. The NFL has slowly made rule changes for the television audiences; adding media timeouts, instant replay, bigger and more spectacular halftime shows, more cameras, sideline reporters and so on.

This is all because each NFL game is truly an event. There are 10 regular season baseball games for each NFL game. There are 5 hockey games, five basketball games and at least twice as many Major League Soccer games. Every NFL win or loss can truly decide a season, and that is what keeps the NFL compelling.

Around each of these events, the NFL has also done a good job in creating sub-events such as the NFL Combine, the Senior Bowl and the NFL Draft. The NFL cashed in on these with the advent of the NFL Network, and augments them with round-the-clock reporting on player signings and other NFL related news.

The problem that the NFL is currently facing, however, is that the sport and its market share in the United States is maturing, is reaching the top and may already be on the downside. So where does the league go from here?

There probably won’t be another juggernaut to take its place in the years to come. Like with other major television shows and events, the erosion will simply come from increased options. Thousands of cable networks, more on demand movies, video games and so on will slowly pull viewers in a variety of different directions until one day there just isn’t enough money to sustain the current NFL way of life.

The NFL has also become stayed in recent seasons. Though it’s still football and anything can happen, the game has become much more of an intellectual chess match between a pair of coaches on opposite sidelines. The same coaches and scouts are recycled year in and year out, and it’s virtually impossible for any new blood to get hired within the league (believe me, I’ve tried).

All signs currently point to a slow erosion of the league’s popularity over the next few decades. Maybe this is inevitable; maybe not. But, like with most of my posts, I have a few ideas.

1. International Television and the 17 Game Schedule
Unless someone brings back the Concorde and makes it twice as fast, international expansion just won’t ever be a possibility. But that doesn’t mean more NFL games can’t be played internationally.

The NFL needs to put its product on all six continents (the viewership in Antartica can be ignored), not just Europe. Ignoring emerging markets in Asia, the Middle East and South America would be a huge mistake, and the third most popular outdoor sport in the world is Australian Rules Football (by per game attendance, yes really).

The current idea of a team (St. Louis right now) giving home a home game each year to play in London is just stupid and a great way to annoy your fans. Plus you’ll need more teams. So how to do this?

Simple: add one more game to the regular season schedule, and require all teams to play an international game. Then eliminate two preseason games, and require each team to play a rookie/first year player scrimmage against a local rival on a rotating basis, one year at home, one year away. Finally, expand training camp for each team by a week to allow more practice for rookies and younger players to make up for the lost preseason games.

There are some logistical problems with this, most notably the distance travelled and the time change. There’s simply not much that can be done about the time change; the NFL might have to suck it up and simply do replays.

However, it would seem best that, if the NFL were to expand to doing a Thursday night each week of the season, that game should be international only and showed on the NFL Network. Even as a replay, it would still be popular and could also be shown over-the-air in the local markets of the two teams.

As far as travelling is concerned, give the team a bye week the week before a game. So the team plays on a Sunday or Monday, doesn’t play for 10 days (the following Thursday) and then has 10 days to return home, recover and play its next game.

Doing this essentially requires the league to install a second bye week: a bye as it currently stands, and a bye before its international game. The NFL should love this; by doing this, it expands its current 17 week regular season to 19 weeks, and the viewers won’t really notice.

2. Don’t Ignore the Arena Football League
The NFL flirted with the AFL in the early part of the last decade, and this ended in disaster, mainly because the league never really got ArenaBall. It’s a different game, and no amount of rule tweaks is going to make it the same.

And this is a good thing.

The AFL is a completely different kind of fan experience than the NFL, quite frankly. It’s played inside in the spring and summer, you can sit virtually on top of the field and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than an NFL game. In most cases, one can get season tickets to an AFL team for about the same as a single NFL nosebleed seat.

Given that the AFL game can be played in virtually any existing sports arena around the world, given that it’s a faster, higher scoring and easier to understand brand of football with a better fan experience and given its relatively low costs; this gives the AFL a much greater chance at worldwide expansion than the NFL.

Bringing regional Arena Football Leagues to the other five continents around the world is a terrific way to globalize the American sport of football and to allow the average person a shot to see a game live.

Plus an AFL with a raised local and international profile also aids the sport in becoming a much broader, year-round experience.

3. Shorten the Games
Though a longer game means more commercials and more ad revenue, shorter games means more intensity and more excitement without the risk of overexposure.

Though no one wants to shorten the overall game play, there’s a couple of very quick ways to cut down on time: don’t stop the clock when players go out of bounds (except for the last two minutes in a half) and cut the play-clock from 40 seconds to 35 seconds.

Though many players and coaches will complain about the reduced play clock, the simple matter is they will find a way to adjust. Maybe the possibility of adding radios to all player helmets for playcalls or simply being in better shape will do it, but it can be done. In addition, the running clock will add a greater incentive to use the clock better and to get more actual playing time into the 60 minutes of the game (which currently lasts over three hours).

These are just three ways in which the NFL can make some overall minor changes and improve its product going forward. The simple matter is that if you’re not looking to improve every year, then you’re going to fall behind. I think the NFL recognizes this; but it needs to get away from some of the gimmicks (like fans at the combine and 40 yard dash races) and find away to expand and improve its overall product.