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Sports Authority

Karnes: Will NFL thrive or take a dive?

| Friday, March 28, 2014

March is undoubtedly one of the greatest months of sports all year. You have the push for the playoffs in the NBA, MLB’s Opening Day and topping it all off, the insanely entertaining March Madness. Thus, when I visited ESPN.com on Thursday afternoon, I was a bit surprised to see the top story did not relate to the start of the Sweet 16 later that night, nor the Pacers’ down-to-the-wire victory over the defending champion Heat on Wednesday night. Instead, Johnny Manziel stared back from the center of my screen, featured for his Pro Day at Texas A&M. That his glorified practice was displayed ahead of the best of the NBA and NCAA serves as a reminder of an undeniable truth in today’s sport’s world: even in the offseason, the NFL is king.

Never before has a sport risen to this level of national prevalence. Last season’s Super Bowl between the Broncos and Seahawks attracted 112.2 million viewers, making it not only the most-watched sporting event in U. S. television history, but the most-watched event of any kind. In fact, the NFL has broken this all-time viewing record with four out of the last five Super Bowls. But even more impressive is its offseason relevance. Sports channels are filled with the never-ending examination of prospects like Manziel and free agent analysis by television’s talking heads, and the NFL has even based a hit TV show, HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” around its offseason training camps. Round one of last year’s NFL draft drew 6.2 million viewers to ESPN; for comparison, game five of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals attracted just 5.6 million.

The NFL’s current runaway success makes it easy to ignore any potential concerns about its longevity, so when Mark Cuban predicted a looming collapse for the league, most dismissed it as just the latest outburst from the erratic owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. According to Cuban, the NFL’s downfall will be due to its own greed.

“I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion,” Cuban said. “I’m just telling you. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting hoggy.”

Cuban went on to discuss how the NFL’s focus on accumulating revenue through the distribution of television rights will eventually lead to overexposure for the league. While the NFL’s $10 billion annual revenue suggests less a hog than a charging elephant, Cuban’s accusations should not be easily discarded. And while he may be known primarily for his rabid sideline presence at Mavericks’ games and the millions of dollars he’s paid in fines to the NBA, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Cuban is a self-made billionaire and owner of successful properties such as Mangolia Pictures and Landmark Theaters.

He is also undeniably correct about one thing: the NFL wants more. In 2010, commission Roger Goodell said the league’s goal was to achieve annual revenue of $27 billion by 2027. With the current annual revenue around $10 billion, major steps are required to reach those lofty ambitions. In addition to constantly rising ticket and concession prices, the most popular methods suggested to promote revenue growth are adding more games, expanding to an overseas audience or playing games on additional weekdays.

The first option has already met with resistance from the NFL Players Association and fans, as the added risk of injury from an extra game is hard to stomach in an age where the horrifying long-term effects of concussions are finally coming to light. And while overseas games are an interesting novelty, it removes a home game from one team’s schedule and puts a harsh travel load on players and coaches.

The NFL has already added one night to its traditional duo of Sunday and Monday, adding Thursday night football in 2006. The weekly game has found relative success on the NFL Network, averaging eight million viewers in 2013, but has received mixed reviews from players and coaches due to reduced preparation time. That loss of practice time is apparent in the sloppy results on the field, as Thursday night football games average one more turnover and four percent worse pass completion than Sunday games. Adding more games may result in more profits, but it certainly doesn’t lead to good football.

The NFL’s current position as the predominant American sport is indisputable, but its never-ending quest to increase revenues may eventually put its throne at risk. While Cuban’s prediction of 10 years until implosion seems extreme, his analysis of the potential damages of the NFL’s greed is spot on. If the NFL continually places earnings above the fan experience, quality of the product on the field and player safety, it may find itself wishing it heeded Cuban’s warning.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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