Nearly four years ago, Roger Goodell outlined a rather audacious annual revenue goal of $25 billion by 2027 to NFL owners, his de-facto employers. At the time, the NFL was doing about $8.5 billion annually meaning that Goodell was hoping to raise revenue $1 billion a year for 18 years to hit the mark. Surprisingly, with the help of recently renegotiated television deals as well as the new CBS Thursday Night partnership, the NFL is on track. Not bad for a non profit organization right?
There are a lot of interesting things to ponder in light of the NFL's latest big step towards the goal with a shrewdly conceived gameplan on the Thursday night front but what sticks out to me is just how brilliantly efficient and aggressive the NFL is becoming as a business. As a fan, some of this is troubling but as a guy who just started watching syndicated programming on CNBC, it's damn impressive.
When I heard the revenue goal back in 2010, I thought it was insane. Inflation would help, media rights would help, but there was a huge gap from getting from under $9 billion all the way to $25 billion. Ticket holders would revolt at some point, the media companies would too, and at some point there wouldn't be any more treasure maps for the NFL to pull out to start digging for revenue.
And yet the NFL is on pace to reach that goal and the snowballing revenue rolls over whoever it wants. The networks are paying up, advertisers are too, ticket prices rise while blackouts decline, and there is no end in sight.
It's not only that the NFL is monetizing the league with brutal efficiency with seemingly 2-3 huge deals or new partnerships a year, but the fact that they're basically doing so in an authoritative way that makes any prospective billion dollar brand, media entity, or "partner" into beggars.
Whether it's Coors getting dropped for Anheuser Busch, Sprint getting replaced with almost no notice for an exclusive mobile video partnership with Verizon (that obviously irked television partners), a lockout that caused a lot of headlines but improved margins and lost virtually no significant revenue, the victory of a nearly decade long fight with Time Warner Cable over carriage of NFL Network, or settling a PR nightmare class action concussion lawsuit for a dime on the dollar, the NFL steamrolls through any process, entity, or challenge that presents itself always coming out unharmed and more powerful.
The visual imagery to best mimic the NFL's dominance is the T-Rex in Jurassic Park accompanied by the Imperial March music from Star Wars.
The NFL's rumored extension with DirecTV for Sunday Ticket as well as the recent CBS deal are particularly interesting case studies in the league's ability to create new revenue.
DTV has had Sunday Ticket since its launch in 1994. To drive up bidding on the package, the NFL had a bit of a dilemma as major cable companies operate mostly regionally. Other than Dish, who would never pay over a billion dollars for an exclusive deal, the NFL's only real option was to create the illusion of other exclusive partner options. The other alternative would be to offer it to all the cable companies non-exclusively, which certainly would get the product in more households but hurt the amount of revenue the league would get as the exclusivity factor is what DTV or anyone else pays a premium to get.
So the NFL embarked on a half-hearted guise to give the illusion that DTV could lose the exclusive package. The NFL was meeting with Google, the NFL was meeting Apple, the NFL was meeting with Netflix. It made sense….. kind of. These companies had money, were forward thinking, and could figure out the distribution if need be. The media clamored over such a possibility while fans scratched their heads. The possibility was exciting to some, but it would be quite a change of course for a relationship that has worked well for 20 years.
And then boom, DTV upped their number and allegedly are not far off from announcing an extension with the league. Competitive bidding is always wise to any seller of a service but the nuanced leverage of the media's appetite for the "digital" option is what really got this extension done, or nearly done. Meanwhile NFL RedZone eats into the uniqueness of Sunday Ticket as well as the broadcast partnerships with Fox and CBS as millions of fans are no longer watching commercials with their football.
Fox, CBS, and DTV are not only paying more while their offering gets diluted by the widely distributed NFL Redzone, but are/were seeing similar dilution from the growing Thursday Night package of games. What started as 8 games in 2006 is now 16 games and while it's been a bit heavy handed, you have to be impressed with what the NFL has done here.
The sole purpose of the Thursday Night package was to pump distribution of the NFL Network, which fluttered for quite some time. Lawsuits with Comcast and Dish and a prolonged stalemate with Time Warner ensued. Out of the woods but not yet over the hump (with Time Warner) in 2011, the NFL was reported to be leaning towards increasing the Thursday Night Package to 16 games and having half of the package being bid on by cable networks.
The league was reported to be looking for nearly $600 million a year and Turner, NBCSN, and FX were all lusting after the package.
But the NFL had an epiphany. If they actually did increase the Thursday night slate of games, but kept it on NFL Network for a little while they could a) break the backs of Time Warner and other holdouts with the additional games being too much programming to boycott b) raise their carriage fees across the board.
And all went according to plan. So was it time now to squeeze some more money out of this tired group of mostly crappy games?
Yes, and once again networks lined up ready to do anything to bring the NFL onto their Thursday primetime lineups. But the NFL knew that removing any amount of games from the network would and could cause future issues to NFL Network's fees. What to do……
Hence the new CBS deal. NFL Network still has games on the network, the games get broader distribution (nearly 45 million more households), the NFL gets reportedly between $250-$300 million a year, and by outsourcing production to CBS, the league will also have cost savings associated with production and on air talent costs.
The best part about this deal? It's a one year contract with an option for the NFL to do a second year and again, it's quite genius.
If cable and satellite companies complain about NFL Network's price over the next 2 years in any extension talks, the league has this ambiguous alibi that they don't know how many games will be on the network either exclusively or simulcasted. Should miraculously the cable/sat companies get leverage against the NFL (laughable) the NFL can wiggle out of this arrangement with CBS. If the league realizes that the network will suffer little harm by decreasing the amount of games on the network, in 1-2 years they can go back to the original plan of bidding this out to FS1, NBCSN, Turner, and ESPN and abandon the simulcasting on broadcast network strategy.
It's truly amazing how much of the league's revenue growth can and will be tied to this sliver of marginal Thursday night games.
Again, it's all very impressive as only the NFL can humble these business giants with frightening efficiency and consistency.
At the same time though, the NFL is still in the early stages of reaching that $25 billion revenue goal and that's what scares me. The NFL is already planting seeds all over for more revenue. Options include a team in London, more playoff teams, an 18 game season, more weekday playoff games (Friday/and Tuesdays), and god knows what we don't even know about. Whenever you hear about these future plans from the league, remember it's all about increasing revenue.
I'm a fan and I'll probably always be a fan and for now I marvel at all the business maneuvers the league has done. But $25 billion? Somewhere along the way if they're that hungry to create/pillage/find/tax/negotiate/intimidate new revenue, they're going to impact my enjoyment of the product and probably lose a lot of others along the way. I won't say that any of the league's moves up until this point or in the works were overly aggressive or short sighted, but the stated death march to $25 billion just seems to be too steep and too fast.
Here's to hoping that somewhere along the way the league and team owners take inventory of where this slippery slope of scraping another billion dollars somewhere from something annually will hurt its relationship with fans. Until then you have to wonder who the NFL has in their sights next for a shakedown.