The NFL just wrapped up a 2017 regular season that was one of the most bizarre in the recent history of the league. Player protests, Presidential tweets and an ongoing fascination with the quarterback who started it all and still can’t get a job dominated conversation above anything that happened on the pitch.
There were even rumblings that the NFL’s TV ratings, for years an unstoppable force the envy of rival sports leagues and TV studios alike, were starting to decline. Any drop in TV audience though is insignificant in the face of the incredible financial success of the league, and is likely more symptomatic of changing consumption habits. The NFL also continues to make ground overseas, hosting five regular season games this year. It is a money-making machine for the 32 franchise owners; the NFL split over $7.8 billion between its 32 teams in 2017. Since buying the Dallas Cowboys for $140 million in 1989, owner Jerry Jones has grown the value of the franchise to $4.2 billion. The team makes a publicly declared $227 million a year.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has rightly come under a significant amount of criticism for his handling of issues such as player protest and discipline, but his ability to maximise the commercial strength of the league has been impressive. One of his most powerful tools has been the NFL schedule. The league has successfully become a year-round sport with events like the NFL draft keeping up interest even when games aren’t being played. Where games used to be exclusively played on Sunday’s with one game a week on Monday night, they are now played on Thursdays, Sundays, Mondays and even Saturdays at various points throughout the season.
Thursday Night Football has been particularly controversial. With less rest creating a greater chance of injury and poor performance, players and fans alike have soured on Thursday night football. The games have a huge impact on competitive balance by affecting team’s schedules, but the NFL has proven itself willing to sacrifice on-pitch considerations for the commercial success. It represents a huge additional revenue opportunity, as while the Sunday Games are largely split between the big powerhouse cable networks, the NFL has been able to get more creative with Thursday Night, with the likes of Yahoo, twitter and Amazon broadcasting games in the last few years.
This all made it particularly striking when the league took a different approach for week 17. Instead of spreading games out across the week, the NFL ensured no team had an advantage by having all 16 games on the same day. They even did away with the iconic Sunday Night Football slot, having all contending teams competing at the same time. Commonplace in other leagues, but unique for the NFL. The fact it was New Year’s Eve certainly influenced the decision, but it was still a rare moment of flexibility from the NFL to prioritise comparative balance over broadcast interest.
Which brings me to the Premier League. Just as predictable a feature of January as over-ambitious resolutions is the yearly debate over a winter break. This year has been no different, with several managers criticising the Premier League’s packed winter schedule. West Brom took on West Ham on Tuesday night having played two days earlier, while West Ham hadn’t played for a week, clearly unfair. The argument that comes up most regularly is tradition. The tradition of football played over the Christmas period is a strong one, as it’s often one of the few times families can watch together. But it wouldn’t be impossible to maintain the traditional fixtures and then give teams a break in January. It seems likely the real reason the Premier League doesn’t follow Europe’s top leagues in having a winter break is a commercial one. The Christmas period is huge for TV viewing figures and gives broadcasters the ability to sell hugely valuable advertising placements. It seems extremely likely that it is the interests of these broadcasts that keeps the Premier League in session over Christmas, not the balance of the league or health of its players.
The NFL’s week 17 flexibility, while seemingly a minor scheduling anomaly, speaks to an important point for all sport leagues. As tempting as it to make the league’s commercial viability as robust as possible in the short term, just as important is the long-term brand of the league. If the NFL continues to put out shoddy Thursday Night product, or the Premier League continues to schedule fixtures in a way that is so blatantly unfair, it undermines everything they do. It is very possible that the way we watch sport will flip fundamentally in the next ten years, and that the traditional models for growing revenue through TV rights will become much less significant. If that happens it will be the leagues that have built up strong brands based on intense competition, incredible athletes that aren’t constantly injured and overall a feeling of competitive balance that will remain popular. Just as athletes and teams are forced to perform in the present with one eye on the future, sports leagues must continue to prioritise their brand, to futureproof their business.