Friday, September 18, 2009
The Wall Street Journal disclosed that Brett Favre's Jersey is the best seller in 19 states, Favre being one of just eight players whose jersey is a top seller in more than one state, far out ranking that of the other seven players. This is a problem for the NFL, because their business is in a potential crisis: they don't have (many) popular players, and many of their best known players are thugs who alienate the mostly White, middle aged fans. This is particularly dicey for the NFL given that it's four largest TV deals expire in 2014 and TV networks are under huge earnings pressure. The NFL is caught between a mostly Black, thuggish player corps threatening to alienate the mostly White and Middle class fans, and the demands of PC and Multiculturalism. Perhaps only Brett Favre can "save them" by buying space and time while the NFL figures out what to do and develops more popular players.
The NFL will have its deals with NBC (after a deal in August to extend "Sunday Night Football in America" to two more years, through the 2013 season), CBS, FOX, and ESPN expire at the same time. The league nets about $3.1 billion per year from those deals, and about $1 billion a year from the DirectTV Sunday Ticket deal, which expires year later, at the conclusion of the 2014 season. The NFL Network deal is about $400 million a year for the league, although that is mere book-keeping given that the NFL owns NFL Network. Altogether the NFL nets somewhere north of $4.1 billion a year from TV revenue, given that it likely makes a small profit on the NFL Network via advertising and cable/satellite fees in addition to the main TV deals. This is serious money, that is shared relatively equally among the league, forming the core revenue of many smaller teams (Buffalo, Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Seattle come to mind). The the failure to develop new appealing stars, and a serious problem with thuggery by a significant number of its players, threatens this extraordinary revenue stream, the best in professional sports.
Michael Vick is the best example of polarizing figures, and an ominous one for the NFL. A recent poll noted the huge racial disparity Blacks support Vick returning to the NFL by 82%, while Whites oppose it by 46%. Meanwhile a survey of NFL fans finds that53% don't want Vick on their team. Vick, it must be noted, engaged in a long-term gambling ring (dog-fighting), threw family pets into dogfights to be torn apart (and laughed at it), and personally hung, electrocuted, beat to death, and drowned dogs that would not fight or failed to fight well. According to sworn testimony, he found killing the dogs "funny" and amusing. Indicating a strong streak of sadism that characterizes the progression of serial killers. All this while Vick had a multi-year deal worth $130 million.
According to Alan Barra at the Wall Street Journal, 67% of the 1,696 players on the NFL's per-team 53 man active player roster are Black. About 31% are White, with a small sampling of other ethnicities. Using the US Census Factfinder this compares to a population that is 74% White and 12% Black (based on the 2005-2007) survey. With the 2008 estimated data, the Census Bureau reports 80% White to 13% Black. Even by the most conservative estimates, America remains a very White nation, and with the Black Middle class being only 40% of Blacks, or about 5% of the total population. The most "Black" of the sports leagues, the NBA, is believed to be getting $930 million a year from all its broadcasting partners. Estimates vary for the percentage of White players in the NBA, from 9% to 20%, complicated by a good percentage of White players being foreign born (example: LA Lakers player Pau Gasol, is from Spain).
Clearly, while the mostly White sports fans can and will readily accept a large percentage of teams comprised of Black players, television revenues decline as team rosters become uniformly Black, and particularly when few "stars" who are both amiable sports figures and achievers in the game, are White. No one can force the mostly White, middle class, and middle aged sports fans to watch games, either on TV or in person. Sports fans not watching, means lucrative Television deals are renewed at far lower rates. League licensed apparel sits in warehouses or must be sold at discount rates. Corporate sponsorships are dropped or are renewed at far lower rates. This is not surprising. People like to watch people who resemble (idealized) versions of themselves.
Cleveland Wide Receiver Donte Stallworth, convicted of a DUI manslaughter, remains under house arrest but is on the Cleveland Browns roster, though currently suspended by the NFL. The murder charge against Raven's Linebacker Ray Lewis, the Las Vegas shooting that paralyzed a security guard in a strip club by the entourage of Pac Man Jones, Jones later fighting with the Dallas Cowboys bodyguard-minder, involvement in gambling, the murder conviction of Carolina Panthers Wide Receiver Rae Carruth, are all problematic for the NFL. Michael Vick's actions did not bolt out of the blue, rather he was merely the latest in a long trend that dates back to the 1990's.
It is perhaps inevitable in that with 1,696 active players, many of them raised by single mothers in Black ghettos, finally getting enormous amounts of money, fame, praise, and attention, and being able to slide by most of society's rules by athletic achievement since early adolescence, that year in and year out, there will be shocking, and often vile behavior by a few of them. In 1963, both "Golden Boy" Green Bay Quarterback Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions All-Pro Defensive Tackle Alex Karras were suspended for one year for gambling. Showing that even White, middle class players are susceptible to bad behavior.
John Madden has noted that the overwhelming majority of NFL players are good people, who anonymously work for numerous charities, giving of their time and money (from players whose average career lasts only 5 years). Warrick Dunn, for example, was the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2005, and has established a charity to purchase homes for single parents in memory of his mother, who was murdered working a shift as a security guard. Dunn is hardly alone, NFL players like the Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, chartered trucks with food and water to Katrina victims in New Orleans, in the aftermath of that hurricane.
But the overall decent nature of NFL players is not enough. The NFL has a star problem. Few of their stars are White, and even fewer of them are the sort of "funny" and self-deprecating characters that generate ratings, ticket sales, and fanatical fans generating over $4 billion a year in Television revenues.
The League tried to "sell" variously Tom Brady, Ladainian Tomlinson, Donovan McNabb, Phillip Rivers, and Brady Quinn, among others, and found few takers. Despite being featured in DirectTV "Sunday Ticket" commercials, and a few others, Rivers and Tomlinson lacked the sort of charisma needed to connect with fans. Brady and McNabb, meanwhile, came off as arrogant, with a side order of whining (about how hard it was to be a Black Quarterback) from McNabb. This in the year that Eli Manning and Rex Grossman were roasted on sports talk radio. Brady Quinn, while personable, has yet to accomplish anything interesting on the field.
Meanwhile the NFL's most popular star remains: Brett Favre. It's no secret, Favre has charisma, the older White male NFL fans identify with the man who will be 40 in October. This is why his jersey sold so much, setting the single day record for the NFL's online shops when he signed with the Vikings this Summer. After Favre, the 33 year old Peyton Manning, the 38 year old Arizona Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, the 27 year old Ben Roethlisberger, and the 30 year old Drew Brees are popular, amiable, and visible Quarterbacks (the marquee position of the game). The 29 year old Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo has yet to accomplish anything in the post-season, limiting his popularity.
NFL fans like particularly QBs who have won in the post-season, particularly Superbowl champs, and who are amiable with a sense of humor about themselves. Arrogance finds few admirers, while humor finds many. Tom Brady has played in four Superbowls, winning three of them, and being the MVP of two. Yet he remains, unpopular, compared to Peyton Manning or Brett Favre, who have won only one Superbowl a piece. Clearly, persona counts, and Brady, despite his accomplishments on the field, has been unable to connect to fans. Clearly humor (both Favre and Manning are funnier than Brady) counts for a lot. Above all, the games are entertainment.
The problem for the NFL is that Favre and Warner have only a few more years left, if that. Peyton Manning is 33, Eli Manning is 28, and Drew Brees is 30. These are players who are all getting older, and of them, only Peyton has connected with the public in a wide fashion. Roethlisberger is an up and coming player, with two Superbowl victories, a general amiable on-screen presence, but despite his size has a history of injuries, a potential scandal (a rape charge that appears a bogus extortion attempt, but still exists) and a team that does not feature much passing by the QB. Roethlisberger, however, is the one potential younger star in the NFL that could possibly replace Brett Favre.
It is true that players, particularly quarterbacks who maintain rigorous off-season conditioning programs and do not run much, can play much longer than in previous years. But even so, the current crop of NFL QBs beyond the ones listed above have yet to connect with the wider NFL audience and fan base. Brett Favre, assuming he can play a full season, and take the Vikings into the post-season, might just buy the NFL another year to help develop Roethlisberger, Brees, and perhaps Brady Quinn into more appealing stars that generate interest in the mostly White fan-base.
So far, the ESPN Monday Night Football double header did very well. The come from behind victory by the Patriots over the (hapless) Buffalo Bills averaged 14 million viewers, beating the number for the most viewers by cable set last Summer by TLC's "John and Kate Plus 8" (10.6 million viewers). The week before Christmas in 2008, the CBS NFL game pulled in 20 million viewers. This compares with the 16.9 million season average for the CBS new show (that season) "the Mentalist." With, it must be noted, hard to attract male viewers making up most of the 20 million viewers, compared to a likely female-majority audience for "the Mentalist."
Clearly, the NFL is popular. Football is an amazing game, like chess where the pieces collide into each other at high speed and with great force. At its best, the game can be complex, fast paced, exciting, and with huge momentum changes from play to play. Featuring grace and power together, along with team-work and huge amounts of cooperation under a paternal, older male authority figure. But the game itself, though a large part of the NFL's appeal, is not enough to sustain the more than $4 billion a year revenue from television contracts, particularly with all deals expiring in four years.
The college game offers the same thrills, and it is no accident that ESPN promotes both clean-cut (and White) QBs such as Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow, as well as "conference buster" teams such as Boise State, BYU, and Utah, that offer a larger proportion of White players, and a more accessible image.Football fans who find mostly unattractive "stars" such as Donovan McNabb, or Michael Vick, or Tom Brady, can simply substitute the College games. It is as easy as flipping the channel.
What Bret Favre allows the NFL is time. Time to promote more clean-cut, amiable stars. The happy focus on a feel-good story of an aging QB trying to help a team loaded with talent get into the playoffs, instead of a nascent serial killer as the NFL's most-publicized QB. Favre, at least while he plays, can starve the Michael Vick story of oxygen. Which clearly the NFL needs.
It was rumored that Jessie Jackson (with the help of former Colts head coach Tony Dungy) threatened a public protest if Vick was not re-instated by the NFL, and predictably, the NFL caved. That caving however, has a huge risk. Fans could simply turn away in enough numbers that the NFL resembles the NBA in fan base (and revenues) instead of what it is now. If Michael Vick is the face of the NFL, with the current Black player roster percentage (67%), those astonishing viewer levels for games will likely be cut in half.
Perhaps the man who ultimately replaced Michael Vick in Atlanta, Matt Ryan, can become a fan favorite nationwide, or hapless Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford revive the moribund franchise the way Peyton Manning did the Colts. The NFL had better use the extra year Favre gave them to find something. Fans have to want to see players win, if not, significant numbers of them will simply not watch.