The NFL: Forgetting Its Business Model

When did it happen? When did the National Football League, the most successful professional sports organization in the United States, suddenly lose its ability to manage its own affairs after thriving for almost a century?

Many believe that this past month (or even this past week) has been the worst time in the history of the League.  And for good reason: public protests have recently exploded over a startling series of violently criminal acts, debilitating player injuries, and highly questionable corporate behavior.

But the origins of such recent outcomes might be traced back to 2013. Last year, after all, was the time that the NFL first appeared to decisively step away from its traditionally successful sports business model.

Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to describe its decision as “intentionally forgetting” its classic model. After all, at its essence, the traditional game of football generates far more violent physical contact than any other major sport in the United States.

That’s why, for much of its existence, the game was only played on Sunday afternoons. And that’s why each game initially featured (and still features) a half time break midway through its sixty minute period.

League officials always knew that the human body can only sustain “just so much” violent activity before it requires resting and healing time. Weekday, Saturday, and halftime (on game day) rest periods were thus mandated for recuperation purposes.

But last year, the NFL announced an unprecedented agreement for a television network to broadcast Thursday (i.e. midweek) games throughout the season. And earlier this year, the League boldly asked performers at its Super Bowl half time show to begin paying fees in exchange for media exposure.

So what should we make of a full slate of midweek games, staged for the benefit of television networks? And an even more drastically elongated half-time show for the purpose of showcasing musical acts?

Such activities are inconsistent with a traditional business model that is dedicated to placing the fittest (and the most appealing) players on the field to compete for athletic victories. Nevertheless, they are perfectly consistent with a model that is dedicated to optimizing television ratings, music sales, and other media revenue streams.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the NFL’s recent travails betray a surprising forgetfulness of its traditional game-dominant business model. Instead, the League has recently chosen a media-dominant business model, a strategy that is now impacting its fortunes accordingly.