Imagining the NFL, five years in the future
Officials measure for a Cincinnati Bengals first down during the second quarter an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Barry Wilner, The Associated Press
Published Friday, September 7, 2012 3:30PM EDT
NEW YORK -- Laser technology to help officials. Computer chips in the football.
Devices that measure the impact of a hit or the speed of a ball carrier heading to the end zone. Streamlined, yet safer equipment. A 400-pound player.
More teams in the playoffs. More international matchups. More prime-time games.
NFL 2017, quite possibly.
America's most popular and profitable sport, a $9 billion dollar industry that figures to be worth more than $14 billion in five years, still will feature 100-yard fields, 11 players on each side of the ball, and Green Bay cheeseheads by then. Otherwise, experiencing the NFL season and off-season could change drastically, whether you're on your couch, at the local tavern or in the stands.
So look for a longer draft, possibly rotating to league stadiums. Expect huge video boards in those stadiums capable of providing instantaneous information for the fan and the fantasy player -- along with highlights from every game, peeks at what the referee sees when reviewing challenged plays, even views of the locker room.
Dynamic ticket pricing. Another outdoor Super Bowl in a cold weather city. A franchise in Los Angeles, perhaps even two.
All of that possibly, perhaps probably, is ahead for the NFL.
"Our philosophy is to always look for ways to improve," Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "Our goals are to continually evolve the game to make it better and safer, serve our fans in new ways, and represent the NFL with integrity. We do that by emphasizing quality and innovation, including the latest technology as it applies to everything from equipment to medical care to the stadium experience."
And it all could come crashing down if the thousands of people involved in concussion lawsuits against the league win their cases.
"You never want to understate the potential impact of class-action lawsuits," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports business consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd., and a keen observer of the league's business side. "Having said that, we must keep in mind that if the concussion lawsuits are found for the plaintiffs, we are talking about effectively eliminating football in the U.S. They will have to say football inherently is too dangerous a game to play because it inherently causes concussions. That could be the impact of these lawsuits."
That's a doomsday scenario. More likely, the NFL will be around and will remain this nation's No. 1 sport.
With labour peace assured for another nine years, pro football is well-positioned to continue its prosperity. One of the biggest challenges to remaining No. 1 in 2017 will be making every game for 17 weeks an event, no matter where it is being viewed.
Making the stadium experience as enriching as what fans get at home is a challenge now, and will be even more so in five years. Consider how the fans in their decked-out living rooms, watching on high-definition TVs, have access to every game through DirecTV's Sunday Ticket and the Red Zone channel. They have all kinds of statistical info at fingertips, particularly for their fantasy teams. And they can get everything on a smart phone or tablet.
By 2017, maybe even sooner, they will enjoy all of that -- and more -- at the ballpark.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced this week they hired an outside company to enhance the in-stadium experience through "free Wi-Fi, a new replay system, and bolstered customer service." Fans can take advantage of wireless access to use the team's official mobile app, as well as the Bucs' tablet and smartphone application that will give them special features when used at Raymond James Stadium on game day.
Fully powered Wi-Fi will be available at all stadiums "much sooner than in five years," said Redskins general manager Bruce Allen. Stats and highlight packages from NFL Films, too.
The monstrous, crystal-clear scoreboard at Cowboys Stadium will be replicated elsewhere, providing a better variety of replays, real-time statistics and -- get this -- instant measurements of how much force Ray Lewis, if he is still playing at age 42, used to bring down a runner. Or how many miles per hour A.J. Green was running when he caught that bomb from Andrew Dalton.
NFL vice-president of business operations Eric Grubman sees cameras in locker rooms or tunnels beneath the stadium or coaches' facilities supplying video for the folks on hand.
"I don't look at it as trying to match or duplicate the home experience," said Steelers President Art Rooney. "The idea is create an in-stadium experience that is unique and different from the home experience. It's always going to be unique in terms of in-stadium live experience. You won't ever equal that, with thousands of fans cheering along with you, no matter how much you turn up the sound at home."
Turning up technology for action on the field is ahead, too. Most intriguing is possibly having a computer chip in the football that, through lasers or some other electronic wizardry, will indicate if the ball has crossed the goal line. On-field officials -- replacements or otherwise -- probably can't wait for that.
"Definitely. We're almost there," NFL senior executive vice-president Ray Anderson said.
Giants general manager Jerry Reese agrees. "That's something I could definitely see by 2017," he said.
The first-down line that has become a staple of all NFL broadcasts should become a fixture for fans at the stadium through the same technology, too. Chain gangs might disappear, as well, if measurements can accurately be determined through high-tech enhancements. Lasers or computer chips could "extend 100 feet up" Anderson said, to determine if a kick goes through the uprights.
"There's so many things we can and will do with technology the way it is and will be," Anderson said.
NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith believes Jerry Jones has put many of the advancements in motion at his billion-dollar palace, things that will become common throughout the NFL in five years.
"Take Cowboys Stadium, where that stadium was designed for players to walk through that tunnel and glass partition where fans can see them up close and touch them," Smith said. "I don't care how good your HD TV is at home, if you want that opportunity to get up close, that is very cool in Cowboys Stadium.
"Jerry Jones got there because he asked the question of how am I going to get people interested in coming down here? One way: to touch players."
The guys playing the game in 2017 could have helmets with more padding to protect their heads, along with lightweight knee, thigh and hip pads that the NFL plans to make mandatory, perhaps by next season. They will spend even more time with personal trainers and dieticians.
At least they'd better, according to Brian Martin, CEO of TEST's academies in Florida and New Jersey, who believes the current CBA and its limitations on time spent at team facilities will have a huge effect on player health.
"They need to make sure they have doctors and physical therapists that the athletes trust, people outside their NFL organizations," Martin said. "They will need to do research on their own into helmets and equipment. Nutrition will become more calculated; it's hit or miss with them right now."
Martin sees players hiring their own specialists such as podiatrists, chiropractors and sports psychologists.
"They are CEOs of their company and their bodies are their company," he said.
Those bodies have grown larger, yet faster and more agile. Unlike Rooney and Browns President Mike Holmgren, Martin thinks the size of NFL players will continue to increase.
"I see 400-pounders on the lines and 300-pound tight ends who can run a 4.6 or 4.7 40," Martin said. "With nutrition and weight training and all the science they can do now -- this society is all about more is better. They are averaging 300 pounds in high school on the lines."
But Rooney cringes when asked about 400-pound NFLers.
"It's hard for me to believe we will see a lot of 400-pound players, let alone any," the Steelers owner said. "I do think with the guys today who are at 350 pounds or so, we've got to be close to the maximum. But knowing that many years ago, there were no 300 pounders or very few like we have today, it's difficult to project.
"I think there's a limit to how big players will be able to get to perform and move with the agility you need in the NFL. I think we are close to maxed-out on the weight."
And Holmgren, master of the West Coast offence, expects a shift in the other direction.
"I don't think players were ever this big and maybe we have maxed out on the offensive and defensive lines," he said. "You look at certain systems in the league and they require the opposite, linemen who can really move, pull. ... There could be more emphasis on undersized players then."
The size of the draft, and its location might change by 2017. Allen wants to see his league emulate -- get this -- the NHL by moving the draft to various cities and having the players meet with team staffs, including the coaches and GMs who chose them, on site.
"The player gets selected and almost immediately goes to a suite of the team that chose him, gets to meet his new team, some of its players," Allen said. "I think it would be great and I see that coming by (2017)."
He and many other league executives predict a longer draft, too. Considering how the draft has become a cottage industry -- the NFL's most popular event that doesn't involve actual football -- they probably are correct.
Teams scout for as many as 12 rounds, and the scramble to sign undrafted free agents can be frenetic and frustrating for everyone. But the players' union would have to approve any changes.
"Personnel guys always want more players and more rounds to pick them," Reese said. "I don't see the rules changing on who is (eligible). To play this game you need a certain body type that is developed, physically mature. Players don't have that (early in college). The injury risk would be too high."
Those risks also are the main reason few people envision the 18-game regular season being in place anytime soon, even though there are provisions in the CBA to reopen discussions on it before 2017. Smith and the players are adamant it won't happen, although the broadcast partners would be eager for more NFL programming.
"The 18 games argument, the only reason to do it is increased revenue," Smith said. "What is the wear and tear on the player? Will the increased work decrease their career length?"
Instead of lengthening the regular season and cutting the four-game preseason in half, Rooney, one of the NFL's most powerful owners, sees bigger playoffs. He doesn't necessarily support it, but recognizes there is a demand for it from the fans and the networks.
"It seems other sports have more teams percentagewise in the playoffs," Rooney said. "It would be my guess that will happen by 2017."
As will having a team relocate to Los Angeles, although Ganis wonders how wise it would be to move a franchise there; no one expects the NFL to up its membership beyond 32 by expanding.
"The NFL doesn't need a team in LA to grow its revenues," Ganis said. "If they put a team there before 2017 it is because they want a team rather than need it."
Some think it could be two teams heading to LA by then, which would help offset costs of building a billion-dollar venue.
Smith notes the owners are required under the CBA to maximize revenue. So ignoring a strong market in favour of forcing local governments to increase their funding of stadiums in other cities such as Jacksonville or San Diego -- both prime candidates to be LA-bound should a stadium be built -- isn't good for the whole.
One place we are not likely to see an NFL franchise in five years is abroad. Instead, more international games are coming, probably starting with two in England next year. By 2017, as many as a half-dozen regular-season matches could be on the schedule, with games elsewhere in Europe, in Canada or Mexico.
Another place not worth looking for the NFL in the next half-decade: Friday nights. Or any other nights except the current Thursday-Sunday-Monday setup.
Yes, there would be willing broadcast partners, some already involved with NFL telecasts and others eager to mine gridiron gold.
But competitive issues and the threat of saturation are too great.
"It's also hard to make it fair for all teams on Thursdays, which we have every week now," Holmgren said. "Where did you play the previous week and against who? When is your bye? How much travel do you have to do? It can't ever be fair to all the teams."
One proposal to make the cost of attending the games more fair -- and affordable -- for the average fan is dynamic ticket pricing. There's always the fear of limiting who can afford to attend games, particularly with so many teams requiring personal seat licenses, something that is not going away by 2017.
So clubs could have varying prices for each opponent, with a division game getting top dollar, but a less-attractive matchup costing less.
"I think we'll see better price value in tickets and parking and concessions," the NFL's Grubman said. "It might not necessarily mean reducing prices for tickets; there is no silver bullet. But clubs are finding a different desirability for different things. There is a ticket price for every fan.
"Teams realize a ticket in one part of the stadium has different value than in another part. They are doing a lot of work on what their fan base is, so instead of pricing to the average fan, they will price to every fan."
Except for the Super Bowl, where tickets cost between $800 and $1,200 last February in Indianapolis. Top price could nearly double in five years considering that in 2007, it was $700.
In 2017, the lucky folks attending the big game might also be sitting outdoors in a cold-weather city. If the 2014 Super Bowl is a big success in the New Jersey Meadowlands, the line of bidders, led by Washington and Chicago, might stretch from, well, FedEx Field to Soldier Field.
"I tracked it a long time ago and found that many of our best-rated games are snow games," said Allen, whose Redskins would be the favourite for another outdoor title game in the cold. "I think for everyone, we are not afraid of playing football outside. It will work."