The Statist Bureaucracy Called Pro Football
by Skip Oliva
by Skip Oliva: Ron
24 Monday Night Football game between the Green Bay Packers and
the Seattle Seahawks may one day be looked at as the beginning of
the end for the 92-year-old National Football League. Three weeks
into a regular season under the direction of substitute officials
– a result of an NFL-imposed lockout of its 121-member referees
union – the Packers-Seahawks game ended in farce. On the game's
final play, the substitute officials missed a Seattle penalty and
erroneously awarded a touchdown swung the game (and millions in
wagers) in the Seahawks' favor.
later, the NFL ended its lockout after agreeing to a new eight-year
contract with their regular officials, who returned to a hero's
welcome in Baltimore on September 27. Steve
Czaban, a longtime Washington sports radio host and critic
of NFL management, proclaimed triumphantly, "This will go down as
one of the most spectacular sports business defeats ever, something
akin to the
military blunder of Napoleon's decision to invade Russia."
confuse NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for the late French emperor,
but the metaphor is still useful. Goodell, the son of a former U.S.
senator, took over the league in 2006 after spending his entire
career as a faceless bureaucrat. Goodell's predecessor, Paul Tagliabue,
was a reserved figure who largely avoided the limelight during his
17-year tenure. In contrast, Goodell has made himself the center
of media and public attention. He's determined to spread the NFL's
reach on a global scale, not to mention his own authority to control
the lives of its employees.
of Goodell's administration has been his efforts to construct an
internal judicial system along the lines of a federal regulatory
agency. Indeed, the title of "commissioner" befits a quasi-governmental
entity rather than a corporate or trade association CEO. Like the
Federal Trade Commission, Goodell is empowered to act as prosecutor,
judge, jury and appeals court over any perceived infraction of the
league's complex governing documents.
don't like to question the decisions of "private" businesses. Yet
little about the NFL is private or compatible with free markets.
Most of the league's stadiums are heavily subsidized by state and
municipal governments. The NFL enjoys special tax and antitrust
privileges. And a good deal of the league's revenue and political
authority is derived from intellectual property.
there's a clear cultural alignment of the NFL towards the state
and its institutions. For example, Goodell recently announced the
NFL would donate $30 million to the government-run National Institutes
of Health to study "serious medical conditions prominent in athletes
and relevant to the general population." Goodell noted this wasn't
just about helping current and former players – many of whom are
now suing the league over brain damage they suffered during the
careers – but this research would also help the military,
which of course is one of the few occupations even more dangerous
than professional football.
the NFL's decline probably began with the September 11 attacks.
It was the only time in modern history, aside from labor strikes,
where the NFL had to postpone scheduled regular-season games. The
attacks also enhanced the NFL's existing ties to militarism and
nationalism. Pat Tillman, a respected NFL player, left the field
to join the Army Rangers, where he died under still-mysterious circumstances
and became a martyr. The NFL actively embraced the new security
state, assaulting fans at games TSA-style and lobbying Congress
to approve unmanned drones in American airspace.
would laugh at any suggestion the NFL is in decline. Profits and
television ratings continue to increase with no end in sight, they
say. But the numbers don't tell the whole story. The NFL is a monopoly,
or more accurately a monopsony buyer of football talent, which in
turn comes from a single source – large, mostly government-controlled
universities that sponsor college football. The other major North
American sports can draw upon substantial foreign markets in addition
to colleges. The NFL has never successfully developed an overseas
market. And as American universities face dwindling state support
and budget crises, football will become less and less relevant –
especially as potential liability from brain-injury lawsuits increase.
NFL's revenue model is also antiquated. It depends on three basic
sources – intellectual property, network television contracts and,
of course, stadium receipts. The latter is the most vulnerable.
Thanks to the cheap debt of the 1990s and 2000s, the NFL overbuilt
its stadium capacity. In markets like Washington – where a stadium
was built in a poorly chosen suburban Maryland neighborhood – ownership
has been forced to reduce capacity. The league tries to maintain
the myth of 100% demand by imposing television "blackouts" of any
home game that doesn't sell out, but even that standard was relaxed
to 85% in some markets starting this season.
remains the real power center of the league. Networks continue to
spend billions on NFL rights. These have never been highly profitable
deals for the broadcasters. The conventional wisdom has always held
that you break even or lose money on football because the giant
weekly audience provides a platform to advertise other network offerings.
This is why, in the early 1990s, a then-upstart Fox Network paid
a premium to wrest the most lucrative part of the NFL contract away
from CBS. Fox never planned to profit from football; it simply needed
the lure of NFL games to attract local affiliates away from CBS,
which it did. A few years later, CBS scrambled to outbid NBC for
its NFL contract.
If not for
Fox, the NFL of the 1990s would have looked quite different. Television
revenue and ratings might well have flatlined. The NFL itself is
a bureaucracy, not an innovator. Fox didn't just bring new money;
it also revolutionized the presentation and packaging of the league,
much as ABC did in the early 1970s when it developed Monday Night
Football. This led other broadcasters to respond with their own
becomes, What happens when one of the networks goes bust or simply
gets out of the football business? The four-network system is not
long for this world. NBC, which currently holds the NFL's Sunday
night contract, is probably the weakest link. But all traditional
broadcasters are vulnerable to sudden collapse as the entertainment
world shifts to internet-based, on-demand distribution. Even ESPN,
the all-sports network that holds the lucrative Monday Night package,
is facing revolt from cable systems weary of its astronomical per-subscriber
the league's intellectual property, the value of which is tied to
its brand and reputation. This is where Goodell's leadership, or
lack thereof, will ultimately pay off negative dividends. Goodell's
single-minded obsession with his own authority has not driven customers
away from games as such, but it's made the product much less enjoyable
for the average fan. Bureaucracy always results in higher costs
and lower quality, even when it's not immediately perceptible.
Goodell and the NFL may well follow the model of other 20th century
legacy industries and seek a full-scale government bailout. Once
the brain-injury lawsuits become a serious threat to the NFL's bottom
line, Goodell (or his replacement) will inevitably seek some degree
of federal immunity – in exchange for which Congress will get to
create a new bureaucracy to oversee the "health and safety" of professional
football. That will be the moment the NFL really dies, even if the
games themselves continue for several more decades.
[send him mail] is the editor
of Man, Economy
& Sport and a contributor to the SEC football website
Saturday Down South.
© 2012 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
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