At the first annual Bloomberg Link Sports Business Summit, held in New York City on September 7, Bloomberg reporters-as-moderators had the opportunity to ask the executive-studded lineup of American sports leaders questions about the role of technology in the leagues' future growth. And they fumbled.
In the past two years, this freelance journalist attended more than a dozen Bloomberg Link summits on business and technology. In those events, Bloomberg News reporters were on-target with probing questions on the latest trends that impact businesses, industries, governments, and even politics. That didn't happen this time.
At the event's main interview, "NFL Season Kickoff & Game Plan," a one-on-one with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Bloomberg Sports reporter Scott Soshnick spent five of the precious 25-minute Q&A session on the issue of replacement referees currently used in the league. While it is interesting to get the commissioner's side on the impasse with the referees, who are fondly referred to by the fans as "zebras," Mr. Soshnick's questions did not generate any significant ideas on the NFL economic growth engine.
Concussions in Football
Mr. Soshnick also asked about the concussion issue with football helmets and the recent tragic deaths of a few retired-but-young former players.
Why focus on this question and similar ones like it?
Perhaps it's about the possibility of the NFL losing its reputation in the court of law because of a class action lawsuit from 3,000 former players and in the court of public opinion since many parents are steering their children away from playing organized football.
The NFL under Commissioner Goodell (disclosure: I went to high school with Roger and did know him personally back in the 1970s), however, has taken several positive, proactive steps to make the collision sport safer for the players.
In 2007, NFL launched a nationwide "Heads Up: Concussion in Youth Sports" campaign with USA Football, the CDC, and 25 other medical organizations. The main objective has been to train and certify coaches to teach young players the proper techniques of blocking with your head up and tackling not with your head but with your hands, arms, and shoulders.
The preventive program is advertised during the NFL and collegiate football seasons as a reminder to all children, young players, and coaches that there are safe ways to play the game. Unfortunately, one Tulane University player broke his neck on Saturday in a game against Tulsa because his head was lowered and prone on a tackle, and suffered a compression hit to the spine.
In the court of public opinion, timing is critical: On the day before the Bloomberg summit, Commissioner Goodell announced that the NFL has donated a $30 million grant to an agency of the National Institute on Health (NIH). The NIH will use the grant money on research to study the cumulative effects of small, repetitive blows to the head and any long-term debilitating effect of such seemingly inconsequential hits to the brain.
Mr. Goodell deftly avoided giving a direct answer on the league's strategy to counter the class action lawsuit by saying, "I leave all of the legal issues (trials, motions, etc.) with the NFL lawyers."
Other Missed Opportunities to Learn the Business of the NFL
Mr. Soshnick covered more old ground and nothing new: On the issue of moving two preseason games and adding them to the back end of the regular season's 16 contests over 17 weeks and the Time-Warner Cable impasse with NFL Network and the live games they feature now all season on Thursday nights.
On the first issue, the NFL season would extend the Super Bowl all the way to President's Day or the third weekend of February. Wouldn't that be good for the fans to have the holiday to cure their super hangovers?
Responding to the 18 game season, Mr. Goodell's response was straightforward: "The issue isn't dead with the NFL."
On the cable TV embargo: "We've established the quality of the NFL Network, which is being carried by everyone of the large distributors with the exception of Time Warner Cable. We've got tremendous reaction from the fans and the carriers, not just from NFL Network, but from the NFL RedZone channel," Goodell said.
He continued: "We've also established the market. It's clear what the market rate is for the NFL Network. We're a little frustrated by it, but we made it clear to Time Warner Cable that we'll do a market-rate deal, and we'll be as patient as we need to be. That's where we are. It's clear the customers want it, and we think that's in the best interest of their customers, but that's their decision.
"We're now getting to the point of renewals with several of our carriers and already completed those renewals. I think if there was a problem with the quality, they wouldn't be renewing at the rate they are renewing. We see, not only the renewals coming in quickly, we actually see increases off of that."
By far, that was the most inspired answer from the NFL commissioner that day that has anything to do with the business growth of the NFL.
Questions for the NFL Commissioner
Following the Q&A, I met with Commissioner Goodell to ask about the role of technology in the business of the NFL.
After a cordial reintroduction, "It has been a long time since I last saw you," he said, I conducted a brief, post-discussion interview.
James Grundvig (JG): "What innovation or technology is the NFL using to grow the sport beyond its normal distribution channels?"
Roger Goodell (RG): "The NFL this season will be selling video packages to fantasy football fans, who want to review or watch live digital feeds of the games to track their players. The NFL is also selling the Coaches' Tapes as part of NFL Game Rewind to the fans for real in depth view of the game. And we are also streaming games through our broadcasters."
JG: "What about the old NFL Films football archive. I understand the 80 years of game and film history was digitized back in 2003 by IBM?"
RG: "Yes, that is correct. The NFL is selling through multiple channels and distributors."
Without Mr. Goodell saying, the channels include selling NFL Films through iTunes in the Apple Store. Also, NFL Mobile is a new app that delivers live streams to the fans on-the-go.
JG: "How is the NFL expanding American football to the international audience?"
RG: "Have you heard of NFL Game Pass?" (I shook my head). "NFL Game Pass is like selling the DirectTV packages of live game feeds abroad to the international football fans. NFL Game Pass is doing really well."
As new technologies and channels are developed, the NFL will be sure to tap into new revenue streams. The shotgun approach, however, of testing and growing the business from across many new channels in disparate markets may take a while for the NFL to aggregate and collect data from all of its 180 million fans (source: Fast Company Feb. 2012) when compared to building a digital ecosystem similar to Netflix plus counting on the Apple Store. With a global reach, there are more channels to feed, track, and monitor but also more challenges in collecting and analyzing with any efficiency unstructured (big) data.
Perhaps the Bloomberg Link Sports Business Summit could have gone from merely fishing for the latest sports sound bites to the business focus of the summit had a Bloomberg News reporter, who is in tune with technologies -- social, mobile, cloud computing, big data analytics -- that are becoming the game-changers in both business and consumer landscapes, sat with Mr. Goodell for a far more interesting Q&A session.