Roger Goodell had a positive message for the 32 NFL owners this past week at the league’s quarterly meetings:
“I don’t think there’s been a better time to be an NFL fan.”
Maybe, maybe not. But there’s little doubt that it’s never been a better time to be an NFL owner or commissioner.
Because after years of bad PR and labor battles and verbal wars with the president, the 2018 season has been all rainbows and unicorns from the league’s perspective.
The NFL’s TV ratings are up 4 percent this season, while the rest of broadcast television plummets. Franchise valuations continue to soar. The games have been mostly fun and compelling, with offenses exploding for record numbers, and young quarterbacks such as Pat Mahomes, Jared Goff, and Baker Mayfield coming onto the scene.
And for the first time in a long time, all is quiet off the field, as well. The battles with President Trump have subsided. The national anthem controversy has fizzled, and Colin Kaepernick’s lawsuit has slowed to a crawl. There’s no domestic violence issue as in 2014, and no concussion crisis to deal with (for now). Even player arrests are way down, per USA Today, from 71 in 2006 to 30 so far in 2018 (knock on wood).
The biggest “scandal” this year revolves around roughing-the-passer penalties. The NFL is more than happy to have that as its biggest headache.
“There’s less drama off the field — with the exception of my team,” quipped Giants owner John Mara. “But yeah, things I think are looking up. I think the game is healthy and the games are compelling, and we’re putting a good product on the field.”
The NFL had plenty of positive data to share with the media this week. Points, touchdowns, and passing touchdowns are at an all-time high.
“I think there’s no question that fans like scoring,” Goodell said.
But the margin of victory is the fourth-closest in history, meaning the games are high-scoring but also tight. Not coincidentally, this is the first season that has had an overtime game in each of the first six weeks.
Amid all the positive talk about the NFL’s TV ratings, the Broncos-Cardinals game on Thursday night delivered a paltry 6.6 rating, which per the Sports Business Journal set a new low for games televised nationally on broadcast TV. America loves its football, but only when the matchups are compelling, and Cardinals-Broncos was a stinker.
“Ultimately, fans, they want to watch and they want to attend close games, and those numbers for us have been really good,” Falcons CEO Rich McKay said.
The games also have been a bit quicker. McKay said games average 157 snaps, up from 155 last year, but the time of game has remained at 3:06, meaning the NFL has trimmed some dead time off broadcasts.
“I think what helped us a lot is reformatting the breaks, going from five breaks to four in a quarter, and I think that’s really made a difference,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft told the Globe.
The increase in TV ratings is most telling, as all four networks have seen gains, even with more and more viewers turning away from traditional television. Kraft said that 17 of the 32 local markets are up this year, including seven of the top 10 (Boston included). The NFL has also seen a 65 percent gain in streaming audiences this year.
Kraft said the NFL has done a better job at promoting positive publicity, including its health and safety initiatives.
“I think what we’re doing in health and safety area, I don’t think the NFL did a good job with the messaging,” Kraft said. “I think it hurt us with young mothers. I played the game, my sons played, my grandsons have played.
“Learning how to get along with people in the age of technology, without phones, and young people on it all the time, you learn to connect with people of different backgrounds.”
Kraft said it was important for the NFL to become a unifying factor again, and not a divisive political force as it was in 2017 when it battled Trump over the kneeling issue.
“The environment, the polarization, and the tribalized atmosphere of what’s going on in Washington, you know it’s been great for cable news,” Kraft said. “But I think [the NFL] had been the one area of escape that was a communal thing, and I think we brought it back to that, and that’s great.
“The product this year has been overwhelmingly accepted, our ratings are up, and I think a lot of it is because people just want to watch football.”
The Conrad Hotel in New York has been the site of the some of the league’s most contentious owners meetings. In October 2014, it was where the NFL was grilled by dozens of reporters seeking answers about the Ray Rice situation and the league’s handling of domestic violence. In October 2017, the Conrad was where the owners were sandwiched in battles with Trump and Kaepernick, and where Cowboys owner Jerry Jones raised a ruckus with his fellow owners over Goodell’s contract extension.
But this year, the Conrad was the scene of peace and prosperity, with Jones doing a total 180 with his praise of Goodell.
“Under Roger Goodell’s leadership, we really are the best I’ve ever seen us in the National Football League,” Jones said. “As far as our transparency, as far as how we’re addressing the issues, the timeliness of it, we’re the best.
“And I know that’s ironic, since we’ve had some criticism, too. All of this really has me looking at the NFL at the top of its game.”
GAMES IN HAND
Streaming views are the next wave
One buzzword kept coming up in interviews with Kraft and Jones: Streaming.
“When I look at the future, I see viewership, it’s going to this hand-held stuff and these tablets,” Jones said.
Kraft said that NFL research shows that 10 percent of its viewers between the ages of 18-35 now watch via streaming rather than traditional television broadcasts.
“We have a real challenge, the whole broadcast television with young people,” Kraft said. “Actually, one of the reasons we got involved in eSports was to understand what’s going on in that world.”
Streaming still represents only a fraction of the overall audience, but the league definitely sees where the trend is heading. Streaming viewership is up 65 percent this year, and there’s a reason for that: The league’s new contract with Verizon no longer gives the carrier exclusive rights to stream games. The five-year, $2.5 billion deal gives Verizon a portion of the mobile advertising, but allows games to be streamed more widely on the NFL mobile app and Yahoo.
The contract runs through 2022, which not coincidentally is when the NFL’s broadcast contracts are up. Streaming rights will be a big part of the next deal, particularly with the Thursday night games.
“Thursday night is really moving towards digital,” Kraft said. “We sold that package that way. Verizon had been a great partner and they controlled all our rights for streaming and now it’s open. You can use any mobile device and Yahoo Sports and NFL Mobile are up this year. So that’s going in the right direction.”
CAP GETS EXTRA SPACE
Gilmore’s restructured deal allows for deadline moves
Some Patriots items:
■ The trade deadline is 4 p.m. on Oct. 30, and the Patriots made an important move on Thursday to ensure they’ll have the flexibility to wheel and deal. The Patriots only had about $1.7 million in cap space (far lower than usual for them) until they converted $4.95 million of Stephon Gilmore’s base salary this year into a bonus. This created $3.7 million in space, giving the Patriots a salary cap number of $5.4 million for this year, plenty of room to make as many moves as they want by next Tuesday’s deadline. I have their top needs as a coverage linebacker (or hybrid safety), running back, and defensive end.
Gilmore didn’t earn an extra penny with this move, but it added $1.2375 million to his salary cap numbers in each season from 2019-21. It also shows once again how the salary cap can easily be manipulated to fit a team’s needs, and how the salary cap should rarely, if ever, be an excuse for a team not signing a player.
■ One good stat for the defense, and one bad.
Good: The Patriots are one of five teams not to allow any points in the two-minute defense this year (the final two minutes of either half). They have faced seven drives, and not allowed a point. The Jaguars, Eagles, Seahawks, and Redskins also have pitched shutouts.
Bad: The Patriots have created the third-fewest negative plays (25) for the fifth-fewest yards (minus-98). Negative plays are sacks, and runs and catches for minus yards.
■ The Patriots defense also has done a great job with penalties. They are still one of seven teams without a roughing-the-passer penalty. They’re tied for the fewest pass interference calls (one), they’re one of two teams without an offsides penalty (Saints), and they’re tied for the second-fewest personal-foul penalties (two).
ONE UP ON BRADY
Draft position his claim to fame
For a story about the Bears offense, I called seven-year NFL safety Matt Bowen, now an ESPN analyst who lives in Chicago. I was scanning his bio to double-check how long he played, and his draft position caught my eye:
Year: 2000. Round: 6. Pick: 198.
“Yeah, right before Brady,” Bowen said with a chuckle. “When people talk about my career, it’s not that he played seven years. It’s, ‘He was drafted one spot ahead of Tom Brady.’ ”
Bowen, who was picked by the St. Louis Rams, remembers draft day vividly, watching from his parents’ home in Chicago. He even remembers the moment Brady was drafted.
“When you get to the sixth round of the draft, they don’t go pick by pick anymore,” he said. “They just show the previous 10 picks. I remember going back after I talked to coach [Mike] Martz in St. Louis and looking up and saying, ‘Oh, there’s Tom Brady, the Michigan quarterback.’ ”
Bowen, a safety who played at Iowa, faced Brady in 1998.
“I always remembered he beat me on a slant route to Tai Streets,” Bowen said. “Really good game, I think it was 12-9. That was the only touchdown of the game.”
Bowen is a volunteer high school coach in the Chicago area, and uses Brady as an example to youngsters.
“It’s a great story, because nothing was given to him,” Bowen said. “A sixth-round pick, I’ve been there. Nothing is given to you. Maybe you get one opportunity, and that’s it. That’s the only chance you get to prove yourself. And look what he did with it.”
Bowen had a solid NFL career – 77 games, 30 starts, 4 interceptions, and 2 sacks in seven seasons — and he can always tell people he was drafted ahead of a Hall of Fame quarterback.
“I was talking to a youth program the other night, like seventh- and eighth-graders,” Bowen said. “The coach that invited me brought it up, and the kids thought it was the coolest thing ever.
“It wasn’t, ‘Hey, which teams did you play for?’ They didn’t even care. Just that I was drafted one spot ahead of Brady.”
KEEP IT MOVING
Raiders of the lost park?
The Raiders are moving to Las Vegas in 2020, but the 2019 season is an issue. They currently don’t have a lease to play at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, and fractured relations between the team and local officials have complicated negotiations.
“We did not have any discussion on that, but we know they are negotiating and we hope that will get resolved soon,” commissioner Roger Goodell said at the quarterly meetings.
I joked on Twitter that the Raiders should become a barnstorming team in 2019, but my friend Brandon Krisztal, a Broncos radio host on Denver’s KOA News, ran with the idea.
His idea: Have the Raiders play their eight home games in the NFL’s top one-off cities: London, Mexico City, Toronto, Vancouver, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Antonio, and for the final game, the NFL’s first-ever game in Germany, which is the league’s third-largest international market.
That sure would be a lot more interesting than a sad, lame-duck season in Oakland.
London bridge is falling through
Jaguars fans were excited to hear the news that owner Shad Khan dropped his bid to buy London’s Wembley Stadium. But it might not be great news for the future of the team in Jacksonville. Jaguars president Mark Lamping said in April that the extra revenue generated from London games is what helps keeps the team viable in Jacksonville. The Jaguars have a deal to play in London through 2020, but their future is more in doubt now that Khan is not buying Wembley. “London as the Jaguars’ home away from home remains a priority,” Khan said Wednesday . . . The NFL announced plans late Thursday for its “NFL 100” campaign next year, celebrating the league’s 100th season. Part of the celebration will include the selection of an “All-Time Team” plus the 10 greatest coaches of all time. Might generate a moderate amount of debate . . . With Josh Allen out several weeks with an elbow injury, and Nathan Peterman still throwing pick-sixes at an incredible rate, Derek Anderson will start at quarterback for the Bills at Indianapolis, just 14 days after he was signed off the street. Shame on the Bills for building such poor depth at the most important position . . . Adam Vinatieri is just 9 points behind Morten Andersen for the most points in NFL history (2,544). Anderson kicked in 382 games over 25 years in the NFL, Vinatieri has kicked in 343 games in 23 seasons.
Quote of the week
Of all the tributes to and anecdotes about late Seahawks owner Paul Allen last week, this one from Colts owner Jim Irsay stands out:
“I had a long talk with him about our frustration about not going to Mars. Going to Mars is a very important aspect, I believe, for the world to do something together. I know I was frustrated, as he was and a few other friends that have interest in that.
“And so who knows? Maybe he’ll leave some of those billions to a Mars mission. From here to the moon is 208,000 miles. To Mars, 250 million miles. That’s why it takes close to 10 months to get there.
“Anyway, I know I’m rambling. We’ll miss him, I’ll just say that.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.