Football Business Not Bulletproof

Without debate football is the most popular sport in this country, though in some parts college may edge out the pros, on the whole the NFL stands atop the perch. Many factors contribute to its popularity – the shorter schedule makes it easier for fans to follow and each game more meaningful, the hitting and action, the weekend schedule and prominent media coverage make it hard to avoid, but two huge differentiators are fantasy and gambling.

As typically happens in business, success and excess profits attract competition. This year brings with it another round of potential NFL competition (or complements, depending on your view), with business models built on the premise that we have an insatiable, almost infinite demand for football. Unfortunately, the early returns for the UFL, as many predecessors found it, find that high demand is not necessarily the case when you take away the top players, team brands, and with it the quality of football. Who thought billboards of Ted Cottrell would ever draw fans in NY? Forget the product on the field, I would never want a marketer trying to jumpstart a league that would come up with the idea to market Ted Cottrell to the NY market.

We can debate about the league structure not working, the time of year creating insurmountable competition, but what the league lacks is a gambling interest and fantasy games. Of course, it needs public awareness and superstar players to draw that interest, however in the end gambling and fantasy may mask the true popularity of football. College football creates a strong fan base from alumni or a bond in the local community that is impossible to recreate, especially for a league whose teams have no true home fields or home cities, since its setup more as a barnstorming operation.

Ratings and attendance fell woefully short of expectations in the first few weeks, and the league has already decided to move games from prominent professional stadiums to smaller, local venues (Citi Field to Hofstra is quite a drop off), which is not a good sign in the first month or two of operation. It took the AFL almost 20 years to reach some level of national appeal before it fell apart due to ownership and labor disputes. The UFL and others don’t have that kind of time, and the nomadic model that lacks the cornerstones that make football America’s sport are missing.

On the flip side, the NFL staged it’s third annual London game this year, with much less hype and, up until game day, still not sold out. Stories continue to swirl about the expanding the overseas schedule, franchising a team in the UK, and eventually a Super Bowl there. That’s all well and good, but the league should get its house in order in its core market before making the plunge. Jacksonville and Detroit games are regularly blacked out, the second biggest market has no team, the sport has struggled to gain traction with some ethnic groups, notably the Hispanic community, and it’s failed to gain a foothold in neighboring Canada.

Creating an additional revenue stream through international is all well and good, but for a sport that is not marketed overseas and that few other countries can relate to or understand, one off games don’t create the type of impact that an effort to resolve some of these domestic issues could have. Played one game annually generated initial excitement, but after three years has lost its twinkle, as seen by the lower ticket sales and less emphatic splash. Plus, you can’t send the Tampa Bay Bucs and expect to win over skeptical fans. The fact the league needs to compensate them to go should speak to how little enthusiasm teams have for this idea. And when the fans get more excited about extra point kicks than touchdowns, we know a hard education on the rules is still in order.

I still think international is a great expansion venue for league business, but I think the NFL has some pressing issues within the core market that it needs to address with more vigor before focusing the required effort on a bigger effort overseas. This is without even mentioning the pending labor issues they face. Overall, football is not bulletproof and we may be able to link many of its advantages over the other major sports to gambling and fantasy sports.

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