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The NFL is dying. Could the coronavirus save it?

The 2020 season already has an asterisk next to it. Why not seize the opportunity to shake things up?

The NFL is dying. Could the coronavirus save it?
[Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images]

There are few institutions more conservative than American football. The NFL has been slow to grapple with evidence of brain damage, circumspect with player protests, and resistant to tectonic shifts in the media landscape that will eventually make its business model obsolete. Unless something changes, it’s likely that viewership will continue to decline over the next decade, costing the league billions of dollars in potential revenue.

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It doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine for a moment if Adam Silver, the forward-thinking commissioner of the NBA, took over the NFL. How would he look at a 2020 season impaired by the coronavirus? If history is any indication, he’d embrace the crisis as a way to test out new ideas, to start implementing reforms, to experiment with new revenue strategies. He’d leverage public consciousness about social distancing to reduce contact and make the game safer. He’d take advantage of the Washington football naming debacle to start a public conversation and elevate the league’s image.

Of course, that’s not what the NFL is doing. As of now, the league is charging ahead with relatively minimal adaptations, despite the current pandemic. Even if the NFL somehow avoids a major outbreak (despite using the same approach to travel as Major League Baseball, which has already seen games postponed left and right), a conventional season will yield a conventional outcome: good TV ratings, solid revenue, a game with a terrible image and its long-term future still in doubt.

Enough. This is the season for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his management team to take a page out of Silicon Valley’s playbook and try as many new things as possible. Act like a startup. Take risk. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make the game safer, shorter, more fun, and more lucrative—all while using COVID-19 as an excuse to walk away from anything that doesn’t pan out. Goodell can start here:

1. Demonstrate more concern for players

Play in a bubble. The NBA and NHL are both conducting all of their games inside tightly controlled spaces (the NBA in Orlando and the NHL in Toronto and Edmonton). It’s working. The players not only seem safe; the leagues seem like they actually care. But more important, if the NFL were located in just one or two cities, they would have to play games every single day. If every game were played in, say, Dallas, you’d need to play two games each weekday and three on weekends. What self-respecting football fan wouldn’t tune in? Yes, it’d take some logistical wizardry, but there are consultants and computers to figure that out.

Elevate the league’s social consciousness. In Orlando, the NBA is constantly using its platform to raise awareness of social justice issues, Black Lives Matter, and equality in general (as has the WNBA in Bradenton). The Washington Football Team literally has no name this year (they’re actually called the Washington Football Team) because of owner Daniel Snyder’s refusal to abandon the Redskins brand. Rather than hiding from the issue, embrace it. Organize a series of online panels, speeches, and conferences to discuss the issue overtly. Talk about why the Redskins name was hurtful to so many people. Talk about what should replace it. Turn one of the league’s biggest embarrassments into a strength.

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Adopt new technology. This is the year to try out new types of helmets, mouth guards, neck stabilizers. It doesn’t matter if every team has the same exact equipment. This is a throwaway year anyway. See if something new works.

Find new approaches. Let referees use sensors to determine whether head-to-head contact took place. Ban the three-point stance, which endangers players by making them more vulnerable to head injuries.

I’m sure there are a million good football arguments against every one of these ideas. But we know the NFL has a serious long-term problem in regard to player safety. Even if only one or two of these ideas end up working, it makes the degradation of the purity of this one season worth it.

2. Make the game more fun

The NFL should change its overtime rules to mimic college football. Baseball is starting the tenth inning with a runner on second base. There’s no reason not to do the same, to use the pandemic to shed the NFL’s moniker as “the No Fun League.” Put cameras on wide receivers and cornerbacks. Let quarterbacks communicate with their teammates via helmet radio. Let fans vote on the playoff schedule (who plays when). Let teams qualify by record rather than standing in their division or conference so the playoffs are as exciting as possible. Stop worrying so much about protecting the shield and start worrying about having fun.

3. Make the game faster

It’s time to eliminate kickoffs (they’re boring and the TV timeouts before and after the kickoff make games interminable). Throw fewer flags—the NFL rulebook isn’t the Ten Commandments. Try cutting back penalties by 25% or 30% this year and see how it goes. And even though limiting instant replay may seem contradictory to putting wearable cameras on players, it just takes too long. This isn’t nuclear fission—if the refs blow some calls, life goes on.

4. Make more money

Social norms evolve in multiple directions. The NFL may not like the movement by fans toward embracing social justice or caring about player safety, but they should like the evolution of sports betting. State after state keeps legalizing online sports betting, with a lot more to come in 2021. It’s time to merge TV broadcasts and live sports betting. Let fans bet online on each play, each possibility, throughout the course of the game, with the odds constantly evolving and updating on screen. Partner with a major sports book such as FanDuel or DraftKings (full disclosure: my venture capital fund is an investor in FanDuel) and take a vig on every single bet.

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Will the NFL adopt any of these ideas? Probably not—if Roger Goodell could successfully mimic Adam Silver, he’d have done so already. But should he? Absolutely. Worst case, these proposals make an already weird season a little weirder. Big deal. Best case, some of these new ideas actually work. Not only does the league get to demonstrate its concern for player safety, for social justice, and for innovation, it also forces a relatively stodgy institution to become more adaptable. Yes, the NFL hates change, but like it or not, change is inevitable. If there’s ever a time to get out ahead of the future, it’s now.


Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist. 

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