NFL Business Grew Stronger During Pandemic, Commissioner Goodell Says

Eben Novy-Williams
·4 min read

The National Football League’s brand has grown stronger during the pandemic, commissioner Roger Goodell said in his annual pre-Super Bowl press conference.

Asked about his long-stated goal of reaching $25 billion in revenue by 2027, Goodell said that the pandemic has allowed the league to strengthen its partnerships and showcase a product he believes is better than ever. He referenced the stardom of the league’s oldest and youngest players, a reference to this weekend’s starting quarterbacks, Tampa Bay’s 43-year-old Tom Brady and Kansas City’s 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes.

“Stronger organizations and stronger brands get stronger in environments like this—there’s a flight to quality,” said Goodell, speaking from an outdoor stage in Tampa. “We’re playing at an extraordinary level that has never been seen before, and I think the future of this league is incredibly bright.”

The truth will likely arrive in the coming weeks or months, when the NFL begins finalizing its much-anticipated next round of media deals. The value of those contracts will show not just how the NFL emerges from the pandemic, but also whether the commissioner’s $25 billion target is realistic. Goodell first mentioned the goal back in 2010, when league revenue was roughly $8 billion. It had grown to roughly $16 billion in 2019.

The league’s current media deals are worth an average of about $7.5 billion per year (the numbers are higher this year because of escalators). That includes the major broadcast deals with NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN, plus its relationship with Amazon for streaming, Verizon for mobile and AT&T’s DirecTV for the Sunday Ticket package. All of those deals expire in the next few years, a deliberate coordination that will let the NFL rethink any or all of them at the same time.

Expectations are that the major TV packages will remain largely in place, with a shake-up for Sunday Ticket and maybe an increased role for Amazon and/or another streaming service. Some media analysts project the average annual fees could double, in which case a set of 10-year deals could easily crack the $100 billion mark. Add in growth from sponsorships and ticket sales, and media figures in that range would likely make Goodell’s $25 billion number realistic, or even conservative.

On the sponsorship side, the league and its 32 teams brought in a record $1.6 billion from corporate partners this season, according to an annual report from IEG. That’s up 50% from the 2013 season. The year-over-year growth was driven by the expansion of new advertising categories, such as sports betting, and the opening of new stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Unsurprisingly, ticket sales accounted for the NFL’s biggest revenue drop. Teams admitted about 1.2 million fans during the regular season, just 7% of the 2019 total. Roughly half of the teams had no home fans at all.

That said, Goodell called the 2020 season “an extraordinary collective effort.” The league finished its 512-game regular season without having to cancel a single game, a stark contrast to the other major U.S. leagues.

Outside of the pandemic, the NFL has weathered other headwinds. Anger over its treatment of quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick has subsided (Goodell again said the league wished it had listened to its players sooner regarding racial inequality), and so too has the ire of former president Donald Trump, who often targeted the league in Twitter rants.

Perhaps most important, the league successfully negotiated a new 10-year CBA last year, which could ensure labor peace through 2030. Even its venture capital arm, 32 Equity, which was seeded by all 32 teams, is experiencing a successful run.

Following Sunday’s game, the NFL will have roughly six months until games resume. Asked about his expectations, Goodell said the league can’t predict whether stadiums will be full for the start of the 2021 season. He also said it was too early to determine whether the league would allow unvaccinated players to compete next year, or unvaccinated fans to attend games.

“I don’t know when normal is going to occur again, and I don’t know if normal ever will again,” he said. “I know this: We have learned to operate in a very difficult environment. We have found solutions, and we’ll do it again.”

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