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Despite a schedule with the fewest games in sports, the NFL has 180 million fans and record TV ratings. It makes up for a lack of on-field action by transforming everything from highlights to league meetings into events. The next experiment? A venture fund: Team owners will contribute up to $3 million a few times a year to invest in businesses that can further incite fan passion. "Companies like ESPN, EA, and DirecTV--we think we’ve been a big part of their growth," says NFL VP Neil Glat. "Wouldn’t it have been interesting if we’d gotten equity?"

Follow Chuck Salter on Twitter @chucksalter.