Roger Goodell the globetrotter is better for NFL than Roger Goodell the sheriff

·NFL columnist

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Last August, when New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft unexpectedly broached the topic of relieving Roger Goodell of his disciplinary power, he launched an unambiguous message from inside NFL ownership circles: The commissioner should focus on more productive things.

This week revealed what those productive things are, specifically, opening the league to a global Internet-based platform and accentuating that push by taking the game into lucrative new markets. Three locales have now drawn interest: Germany, Brazil and the Moby Dick of NFL revenue opportunities – China.

The NFL looks to expand its reach abroad beyond London. (AP)
The NFL looks to expand its reach abroad beyond London. (AP)

In a set of spring meetings that have a fairly slow agenda, this is quietly becoming the pivot point. And considering the timing, it makes sense that owners want Goodell operating with a focus on it. The collective-bargaining agreement and television deals are locked into the next decade. The Los Angeles market has once again been conquered. Arguably only player safety is a bigger league priority at the moment, and that's a very arguable point.

But there's no questioning what is shaping up as the next important question: How can the league expose the game to billions across the globe without actually relocating a franchise across an ocean?

Thus far, the answer has been through small moves and aggregation. The league broadened the international series that will include four games this season – three in London and another in Mexico City. The NFL also is considering proposals to expand online streaming rights beyond last season's one-game foray by Yahoo. Among NFL owners, that one game was merely a toe dipped into what is expected to be the next lucrative revenue pool.

Due to logistics, the expanded streaming rights deal will ultimately be accomplished more quickly than adding games around the globe. But that doesn't mean the global approach will be attacked less vigorously. Indeed, one owner told Yahoo Sports that the long-term goal in the next 10 years could be to host eight regular-season games overseas, a number that would represent a full "home" season in various foreign markets. The owner added that it would be unrealistic and financially shortsighted for London or Mexico City to divide up so many games. And that is why South America, Central Europe and Asia are now being advanced in a "where-do-we-go-next" scenario.

Interestingly, China might be the brass ring that the league is ultimately reaching for, mirroring broader economic interests that are reaching for the world's largest market economy of the next 100 years. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, a foothold in China could represent a revenue explosion for the league. But it could also be another embarrassment, much like the failed "China Bowl," a preseason game between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks that was slated for Beijing in 2007. That game was postponed and ultimately never happened.

"It's fascinating to think about," New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said of the China possibilities. "It's very exciting and very exotic to think about. When it comes time for the first game to be played in China, the logistics are going to be … the league is going to have to figure out how to make it. Getting there, playing there, coming back to the states, how do you maintain the parity of the other 30 teams that don't have to play there?"

The potential for that logistical quagmire is one of the biggest impediments for the NFL, particularly time zone issues that put Beijing 12 hours ahead of New York. But the financial possibilities are too tempting for the NFL to not make a serious run at the market in the next decade. Especially after seeing such a steady and dedicated fan base grow in London.

"When Roger was talking about a game in China, I had an idea: Once they announce the game in China, there should be no time zone – so the whole world is on one time zone," Tisch joked. "I think we're very close [to the NFL controlling time zones]. Maybe by the fall meetings."

The NFL has already taken games to Japan and Australia with what was considered a moderate amount of success. The league is now turning to a more dedicated, permanent approach. What was once considered a showcase to raise the profile of the game is now moving more toward a staple of the league's economic future.

More than anything, that is what owners want their commissioner focused on – growing the bottom line rather than spending his time being an enforcer.

More on NFL