The Richest Game

The National Football League is the strongest sport in the world. The reason: No other league has so successfully exploited new stadiums as the NFL during the past decade. Each of the top 10 most valuable teams plays in a modern stadium, or will by 2010. Yes, England's prolific soccer team, Manchester United, is still the most valuable team in the world ($1.8 billion), but there are only four soccer teams (Real Madrid, Arsenal and Liverpool are the others) worth over $1 billion. The NFL now has 19 teams worth that much, compared with five last year and none five years ago.

The Dallas Cowboys stand at the top of our list as the most valuable team in the NFL, worth $1.6 billion. In 2009 the team will move into a new stadium that should bring in at least $100 million more than their current home.

It's not just the rich teams benefiting from the league's stadium explosion. The Indianapolis Colts were ranked last when we did our first take on the NFL in 1998. This year the team is worth $1.1 billion, up 474 percent from 10 years ago and good enough for the eighth spot. The Colts moved into a new home this season, Lucas Oil Stadium, which will bring in $30 million more in revenue for the Colts than the RCA Dome. Lucas Oil will pay $122 million over 20 years for naming rights, a staggering sum in a small market like Indy.

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In Pictures: The NFL's Most Valuable Teams

New York's Giants and Jets are both worth $1.2 billion, 21 percent more than last year. Each team is expected to net an additional $125 million in revenue from the new stadium they will begin sharing in two years.

Even horribly managed teams with piles of debt can be worth a lot if they own their stadium. The Washington Redskins, who own FedEx Field, milk more money from things like parking, practices and tickets than any other team.

Despite the rise in values, the NFL's margins have been under pressure since 2006, when all football-related revenue became subject to the league's 60 percent salary cap. The league's national television deals with ESPN, NBC, CBS and Fox – which paid each team $87.5 million last season – no longer cover player expenses. Team owners now dig into cash from luxury suites and stadium advertising to pay players. As a result, last season's operating income (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) came in at an average of $24.7 million for the NFL's 32 teams, 11 percent of revenue. That is off 24 percent from the league's peak of $32.7 million during the 2002 season, when operating margins were 21 percent.

This has created an incentive for teams to produce cash outside of football. The New England Patriots get revenue from retail operations surrounding their stadium, and the Cowboys are planning to do the same thing in Arlington.

Thanks to solid television ratings and great appeal to sponsors, the average NFL team is now worth $1 billion, up 8.7 percent from last year and 66 percent from five years ago. But some teams have not fully participated in the valuation growth because of mismanagement or the inability to get a new stadium (in some cases the two go hand in glove), and therefore will either be sold or moved to a new city. Among the likely candidates are the Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders.

The top five:

1. Dallas Cowboys: Slideshow
2. Washington Redskins: Slideshow
3. New England Patriots: Slideshow
4. New York Giants: Slideshow
5. New York Jets: Slideshow
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The NFL's Most Valuable Teams