Ode to Pete Rozelle.

Following last week’s Column on Serie A financing deals, I got a couple of calls from people who used to run a league. A Sports Commissioner. There are not many of us who have done this job.

Running a sports league is the greatest challenge to your interpersonal and relationship skills that you will ever confront. A bit like Josh Lyman in the West Wing, rustling up consensus in Congress. 

You are dealing with big personalities, successful people of gravitas. They don’t take BS. And you need their votes.

They have to like you, they have to admire you, trust you. Believe that you treat all clubs, big and small, with the same attention and respect. You therefore need to spend a LOT of time with the owners, just building a relationship. Because, you have to convince them to vote for your agenda. That’s hard. You also need to herd the cats in the right order, as some of your members will only say yes if they see others already agreeing.

To run a sports league,
know your order of persuasion. 

You also have to be the ultimate realist, coz some things you won’t manage to make happen. Pick your battles. And your retreats. 

Oh, and like in those American politics, you can only get things done at the start of the year/mandate. Once relegation becomes front and present for some clubs, your members’ head is gone on any long-term stuff.

What Richard Scudamore, one of those calls this week, did in the EPL is STILL under-appreciated. It’s a rare success. Richard is an enormous talent. Hard and soft skills. He exudes “firm grasp of his brief”.

Today I want to think of another such professional.

Alvin Ray Rozelle.

Alvin Ray Rozelle, known as Pete, was a Californian from that glorious generation of people who saw active service in WW2. In Pete’s case, in the Pacific, in the Navy. After that, he hustled , like all the greats do, his way into sports PR till becoming the youngest commissioner in NFL history at just the age of 33. That’s some hussle!  

He is credited with making the NFL what it is today. And that’s important to digest, today of all days.

So much of what we will see tonight, from Rihanna to the cultural impact of the first ever match up of two black quarterbacks, can be traced back to Alvin Ray. 

The gorilla dominance of American football.

We all need to doff our cap to the gorilla dominance of American football in the world of sport. The NFL is a phenomenon that all of us, especially in this eclectic moment of disruption for an entire industry, need to study.  I make very little secret that my own career and opinions in sport (often very unpopular in Europe) come principally from observing the success of the NFL, and trying to plagarise Pete. 

Now, I’m not going to drag this article down by the use of all kinds of dominant stats around TV audiences, revenues, ad spot values, and appeal. I’m not going to discuss media contracts and windows of rights across the week. OTT platforms, Google, and Fox with Tom Brady. Loads of others do that very well, and I’m finding myself not having the attention span for all that anymore. Look it up. 

Suffice to say that the NFL is in a league of its own.  It’s them that side of the pond, the EPL in the old Continent, and the IPL in Asia. All other talk in the sports industry is marginal. Niche sport noise to placate the romantics. There are 3 games in town. With the NBA just outside the podium.

But it wasn’t always that way.

America’s traditional sport is baseball, not football. Pete changed that. 

What can we learn from Rozelle taking the sport he led, to utter and complete dominance? Surely THAT is the only topic for discussion in 2023?

I asked ChatGPT various versions of questions of why American football and the NFL is so popular, and supplanted baseball. Here are some answers I got:

  1. Faster pace of play
  2. More scoring opportunities
  3. Wider demographic appeal
  4. Strong media presence
  5. Growth of fantasy football
  6. Player personalities
  7. National identity
  8. Social and community involvement
  9. Economic impact
  10. Sportsmanship and teamwork
  11. National pastime
  12. Pop culture

If an analyst gave me these banal responses, he/she wouldn’t be coming back into work the next day. Ammunition for the ChatGPT sceptics. Its answers were rubbish. Not wrong, just too banal. No human colour.

The NFL’s role in the American Society.

GLENDALE, AZ: Auburn Tigers fans attend their Tostitos BCS National Championship Game against the Oregon Ducks at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

I asked our artist Jacopo Ziliotto to draw me that colour in his title image. And you get emotion and impact back. Reflection. He comments:

the drawing is also trying to capture the aesthetic attraction of the human body at its peak. I’m thinking of Harold Bloom and his essay on the appeal of sport, as a proxy, for the ancient story of the fight between good and evil.

Stunning. The software of 1s and 0s coding has a fair bit to go yet to catch up the artists like Jacopo.

Yes, the NFL IS part of American day-by-day culture, built on the teenage Wonder Years of HighSchool and cheerleaders. It does mirror the exact image of America, (Land of the Free and Home of the Brave), most dear to its inhabitants: triumph over adversity; teamwork; hard graft to succeed; ambition, progress up the field of life. Grind. The social rythym and weekly calendar, family dining, holidays, any given Sunday rituals, are all dominated by “the game”. For most Americans, Thanksgiving would not be complete without playing a game of football or watching the holiday broadcasts with your family. The tailgating. It is the language of connection across the nation.

The famous conversation opener:
how about them Dolphins?”

The NFL is culture. That, crucially, has moved with the times. Baseball is culture left behind in a time capsule of Mickey Mantle and the Bambino

Whitney still unsurpassed in encapsulating all this culture.

 

Baseball got lazy. Didn’t appeal to new demographic audiences, just expecting a slow day at the ballpark to always work. Old, complacent and no eye to innovation to attract new audiences. I’ll leave this there. You know this spiel of mine. 

So we have the social connection of American football. Like soccer in Europe and cricket in Asia. The everyman sport. Blue collar. 

But the NFL isn’t a dominant success just for cultural connection.

Hey ChatGPT, machine-learn this:

The NFL is the gorilla because… 

It understands “less is more”. 

The economic principle of scarcity. The regular season happens over only 4 months.  Then 4 weeks of electric sudden death games. It is the opposite of every other governing body in sport throwing endless fixtures into the calendar. Different to the NFL, where there is only one clear leader and rights holder, most sports have competing governing bodies, all operating like some perverse version of Prisoners’ Dilemma.

People like a short season.

The “regular” seasons  in other sports are full of non-jeopardy games, that make the viewer ask themselves: “why do I need to watch this“? The NFL instead is make or break every week. And they have also been very smart to keep interest high with the equivalent of the transfer market in soccer. The combine, the draft, and indeed the trades. New players coming in creates enormous excitement in fans. Almost as much as the game itself. Trades are a part of the draft, but can happen at other times and do add excitement. (E.g this year Christian McCaffery from Panthers to SF 49ers  almost took the 49ers to the Superbowl. It will provide the Panthers with an opportunity to stock-up next year). Limit the number of actual games but double-down on year-round presence and excitement.

There is complete parity in the league.

If baseball’s Billy Beane in Moneyball laments that there are “rich teams and poor teams, 50ft of crap, and then us“, that doesn’t apply to the NFL. Much effort is put into giving everyone the same revenues, allowing them to spend the same through a disciplined salary cap, and then rebalancing the levels of the franchises by the inverse draft system. The NFL is the only sport that completely embraces the idea that true value comes from complete unpredictability of outcome.  No matter where you live in the country, your team has an equal chance of winning the Super Bowl. This has caused the game to grow in popularity throughout every corner of the country, not just in New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. Every NFL team can aspire to great moments around the corner. There are repeated instances of teams coming from obscurity and having a successful year.  Fortunes change. A first-draft star going to a poor team can turn things around remarkably quickly. The number of teams who make Superbowls is very varied. (That’s not true elsewhere. The Champions League, most soccer leagues, baseball playoffs, tennis finals). This unpredictability also works in spades for the betting industry.

There is very little drift in the game time.

Every play is max intensity of hard hits, full sprints, and outlier athleticism. Nearly every snap is worth getting excited over. It’s as if the entire football game is a highlight reel. Let’s leave aside for a second that the time between those plays is just perfect for ad breaks. But they are! Other sports have their “doze off” moments. Golf over 4 days, cricket over 5, tennis over 6 hours on clay, F1 processions, sterile ball possession in soccer. All of those “down” moments in all honesty do not survive a full Sunday lunch with some proper wine. Zzzzzz!

The athletes are truly astounding.

You get 300-pound guys running 11sec 100m. There is an awe factor. NFL games are full of drama and athletic prowess, that keep fans on the edge of their seats. The rabid linebackers hunting down the hero, protected by his Knights of The Round Table. What a narrative!

The NFL completely “got” and grasped the massive importance of “fantasy” in sport.

As engagement, retention, and marketing to new audiences. To older sports fans, this will seem a stretch, but to those of us who know, Fantasy is just massive. The NFL dominates.

The Superbowl concept.

The halftime show. Add in the iconic ad spots. The cultural connection to entertainment and celebrity. Now copied (badly) by all.

So think about all the issues of our industry.

They can be described as “doing the exact opposite of what the NFL does“.

Soccer missed such a great NFL chance with the Superleague. Fans, media and old players wailed like banshees about the need to preserve the traditions of the game, not realising that those very same sacred cows are killing the game in Europe. Many people will disagree, saying nothing is broken. But they are parochial, and likely based in England. The rest of European soccer is going down the pan.  The status quo under UEFA of more financial doping, no meaningful salary caps, makes only the mega rich clubs capable of winning things, competing governing bodies outdoing each other with ideas of 48 team world cups, meaningless domestic cup competitions, group stages in the champions league. In short,

the complete opposite of “less is more” and “parity”.

This isn’t dense and difficult philosophy to grasp. It’s bloody obvious.

Let’s end this talking about the massive value of the media rights of the NFL. Media values come, not from fundamental spreadsheet calcs, but simply from competing bidders generating FOMO in an auction. Leveraging broadcasters who have no choice but to have a sport. 

The domestic broadcasters in the US have an existential need for the NFL. It’s central to so much of what they still do as a linear broadcaster. Same as Sky and the EPL. The massive audience for live sport, beautifully split up for natural breaks. (Think the opposite. There is no must-have need in France for Canal+ to have French football).

So, when you watch tonight’s game and then go back to your sports job tomorrow, reflect on “success”. The answers are all in front of your eyes. Just don’t whine and say you weren’t warned.

If your sport doesn’t make it, it’s on YOU. So, just follow Pete.


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