What Could Stop the NFL Juggernaut? A Threat Assessment

I heard one of my all-time favorite stories as a college intern at Brown Shoe Company in St. Louis in the late 80s/early 90s. It featured the company's wizened old executives throwing a brash young Phil Knight out on his arse in the 70s. Young Mr. Knight it seems tried to pitch said wizened old executives on a new running shoe whose newness was based on a fairly narrow technical innovation in shoe bottoms (outsoles). At the time, Brown Shoe had one of a small handful of machines in the world capable of making Knight's outsole-he called it a waffle sole. "Who would pay a premium for running shoes?" they scoffed. Well you pretty much know how that ends for Knight, and I bet less than 10% of you have ever even heard of Brown Shoe Company.

Brown Shoe may not compare to the NFL, but it can nevertheless tell it a thing or two about institutional blind spots. As institutions mature, their blind spots for both opportunities and threats tend to get bigger. Institutions slowly (or, rapidly) lose their ability to spot opportunities and threats that don't look, sound, or move in familiar ways. Often these opportunities and threats are hidden in plain sight, just ignored or underestimated until it's too late.

Alas, if history tells us anything it is that the rise and fall of empires, nations, and powerful institutions is pretty routine stuff when you take a panoramic view. Think you're too big or too popular to fail? You just keep on livin', as my grampa used to say. Somewhere out there lurks a rag-tag bunch of nobodies who will successfully challenge your "Un-lee-mih-tihd Pow-ah!!!" It's the threats not taken seriously that usually cause the mighty to crumble.

1. No More Worlds Left to Conquer

One fairly obvious long-term issue for the league is how it can successfully grow in the future. Right now, consumers and advertisers are throwing money at the NFL. They can't get enough. But, the league has just about maxed out on ways to get deeper into the wallets of its overwhelmingly American and male fans. The NFL is a self-consciously hyper-masculine cultural product. That sells like proverbial hotcakes to American males, but not really to anyone else. And all the American men who want some are already buying it.

The league's attempts to target new segments overseas and domestically among women--our own Thomas Beekers and pink-accented NFL accessories notwithstanding--have been pretty much flat busts. (Pardon the pun and Save the tatas!) To be clear, the NFL already makes money off all our rowdy friends sufficient to keep all 30 owners rolling naked in piles of cash into the foreseeable future. The league won't fail for not selling Sunday Ticket TM subscriptions to European soccer hooligans or the Real Housewives of Helena, Montana. Rather, the point is that American men are the last golden egg-laying geese--and they are laying at maximum output right now.

Consider what that means long term for labor peace. Labor strife in the NFL is largely about rich owners (e.g., Jerry Jones) vs. "poor" ones (e.g., Ralph Wilson) far more than owners united vs. players. Historically, the solution has been to grow revenue rather than distribute it more evenly. But growth may be a less viable solution going forward. Ten years seems way out on the horizon when you're sitting at year one, but this growth problem isn't going away.

2. Player Safety and the High School Football Factory

Q: What could eventually knock the NFL from its perch? A: Anything that slows down the flow of talent from high school to the NFL.

Well, player safety may be that thing. Ironically, the NFL's (unavoidable) attention to head/spinal trauma may ultimately hasten the gradual un-cooling of high school football. We are now finding out so much more about the prevalence of head/spinal trauma among high school players, and just how woefully it is handled at the collegiate and scholastic levels. What's becoming clear is that the single "kill" shot is not the only problem. Rather, the repeated collisions inherent in routine blocking and tackling can lead to brain trauma.

Even the cleanest of contact rattles brains inside helmets comparable to a car crash. Head trauma risks are compounded at the high school level by undermanned, non-professional coaching staffs, poor training and equipment, a culture that encourages players to ignore/lie about injury, and the fact that teenage brains are still developing. Right now football gets a disproportionate share of high school sports participants, and it needs a huge share because injury attrition is naturally high compared to other sports. However, "concussions" is becoming embedded into the narrative about football in the same way PEDs were about baseball.

So it is easy to see where the tide might turn against football. I am not predicting a mass exodus, but it's not hard to imagine that football might lose some luster with youth. It is far and away the most popular boy's sport right now, so I don't think people will just walk away. Instead, I could see a few critical incidents starting a steady flow of youth athletes into other sports. One might be states or districts that de-fund football. In the current budget environment high school sports (and football is by far the most budget intensive) may no longer be a sacred cow even in some football mad states. And unlike baseball and basketball, football has fewer or no AAU/shoe company dollars that subsidize off-season training for athletes. The high schools do much of it themselves.

Another incident might be a precedent-setting lawsuit. I don't mean punitive damages, which in many states are capped anyway. I just think we may be moving away from arguments that a particular school/coach was negligent to arguments about the inherent head trauma risks in scholastic football. There is a growing chorus of head injury specialists who are making this argument. A well-publicized injury case could undermine the substantial goodwill football now enjoys.

Obviously I am speculating, but this is by definition an exercise about what could be. The injury threat to the NFL in the next decade is less about carting a superstar off the field. It's about him never having played high school football in the first place. Boys who are 8-10 years right old now have parents who are starting to look much more critically at the long-term health risks associated with playing football because there is more information. As much as I love the Seahawks, I am as happy my 15-year old stepson has zero interest in football.

3. Spiraling Health Care Costs

After decades of callously ignoring former players the NFL is committed to sharing post-career health costs, which commonly rival those of cancer patients. Make no mistake, the costs will be substantial. Remember, the NFL cannot simply take revenue growth for granted going forward. How franchises will respond to rising costs is an open question, but some responses are easy to anticipate. Some owners will want more concessions from the players. Some will go Donald Sterling and stop making investments in their teams. Some will look to sell/move teams. In other words, basically what we have now. Everyone is playing nice right now, but it won't take ten years for the owners to make their dissatisfaction known.

4. Enter MMA: The New Hyper-Masculinity

I know a fair bit about marketing, and I can say this with some confidence. Any product's success is less about some trait than it is about the customers. They articulate needs in a particular way and the product seems like the perfect solution. But the same needs articulated in a slightly different way, and the product is no longer appropriate. Football is as a cultural product. It is American hyper-masculinity packaged in a bundle of wonderfully-blended opposites. (It's where sober statistical analysis is delivered via blood-curdling screams.

It is where motionless couch-potatoes savagely critique men with bodies like gods for only running a 4.8-40; all with no apparent sense of irony.) And for practically a full generation it has really been the only place for men to fill the "gladiator sport" need. Now, that's no longer true. I have yet to get into MMA. It seems unlikely that MMA will grow to 60,000+ seat stadiums but it may be able to draw enough fans away that the NFL comes back to the pack with other sports.

In closing let me say "bless you" if you got this far. My intent here is not to be gloomy, or even to make any predictions. It is merely to look out on the horizon, see where there are threats and to look at them soberly rather than ignore them.

Thoughts and comments welcome.

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