Roger Goodell, elected NFL commissioner in 2006, embodies the sports league equivalent of working one’s way up from the mailroom—he started his NFL career as a public relations intern in 1982. The son of former New York senator Charles Goodell, political savvy is in the current commissioner’s blood. He captained his football, basketball, and baseball teams in high school and planned to play college football at Washington & Jefferson College until an injury sidelined those aspirations.
Goodell served as former commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s right-hand man for the better part of 17 years and as NFL chief operating officer since 2001. He was named the NFL’s ninth commissioner after owners voted him in over outside counsel Gregg Levy. Since his appointment, Goodell has established a hard line on player behavior through a strict personal conduct policy that was evident in the 2007 suspensions of Chris Henry, Terry “Tank” Johnson, Adam “Pacman” Jones, and Michael Vick. He also levied record fines on the New England Patriots and their coach Bill Belichick after evidence surfaced in the fall of 2007 that the team had spied on opponents’ practices, a blatant violation of league policy. In December 2010 Goodell slapped legendary quarterback Brett Favre with a $50,000 fine after Favre was found to have sent lewd photos via text to a Jets hostess during his brief tenure with the team.
In 2011, Goodell faced his biggest challenge yet as leader of the U.S.’s biggest sports concern. On March 4, the league’s existing collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA, its players union, expired without a new agreement in place. One week later, the NFL officially announced a lockout of players by team owners following the move by the players’ union to dissolve and pursue court action against the league.
With a $9 billion business hanging in the balance, the league and the NFLPA worked tirelessly to get a deal done. Both parties spent extensive time in Washington and elsewhere working with federal mediators and filed a near-ceaseless series of motions in federal court. Primary issues on the table included an 18-game regular season, a rookie wage scale, benefits for retirees, and dividing league-wide revenue.
As negotiations dragged on into the summer, making the cancellation of 2011 games a real threat, Goodell emphasized that scratching even the offseason and preseason would result in a id="mce_marker" billion loss of revenue. The NFL’s 32 teams began to plan accordingly for this gridiron doomsday scenario.
Q: Leading the NFL comes with great power and great responsibility. You come from a political family—to what degree are you a politician as opposed to a sports guy?
RG: The political skills are helpful. I don’t know if I would define my job as political. I’ve often heard it said that a commissioner’s job, because we work on the basis of getting three-quarters vote out of 32, in some ways is more relevant to a Speaker of the House than it is to being a CEO. I wouldn’t take that perspective, necessarily. It is true that that’s how we function, but I think if you can present a strong business case for what you’re trying to accomplish, the votes follow behind that. We work very closely with the owners to do just that.
The role of commissioner is complex in that it involves a lot of different requirements to perform the job effectively. Political skills are beneficial, but you have to understand the game; you have to understand business; you have to understand how to communicate properly across various platforms including with your owners, your fans, your players, and the coaches. I think you have to be curious enough to be interested in all the different aspects that can affect your business.
Q: To be commissioner of a major sports league, is it a huge benefit to have come up from within that organization rather than be hired from the outside?
RG: For me, the answer is unequivocally yes. I think when you have relationships, you understand how the league operates from the inside, you’ve got experience in a variety of different areas, you bring a perspective that can only benefit you. There is a potential that it can harm you if you don’t understand that you’re no longer in those other positions. You’re now commissioner. You have to now take a broader perspective and a commissioner’s perspective rather than as a chief operating officer, or head of marketing, or CFO—any other position that you may have held. You have to understand that perspective.
Q: When NFL team owners diversify their interests and buy either controlling interest or a smaller percentage in teams in other sports, do you feel it strengthens the NFL or dilutes their focus on their NFL teams?
RG: We just try to ensure that the owners are singularly focused on doing the best possible job representing the NFL. The other thing that is somewhat unique in sports today is not allowing anyone with media interests that could be a conflict of interest. We don’t allow corporate ownership as an example, because again, we’re chartered to promote the NFL, promote the game, its players, and its coaches to the broadest possible audience, and we want owners singularly driven by doing the best possible job with that objective.
Q: In regard to working with the NFLPA, there are so many agents—the Tom Condons of the world—whose power seems to be growing year after year. How is the balance of labor evolving? Is it a good balance between the league and individual athletes?
RG: Owners and players are in a better place than we have ever been in our history with respect to the relationship between the two parties. That’s because of the recognition of both of those parties of the importance of the other party. I think the owners recognize the importance of players, what they contribute to the success of the game, and they’ve been rewarded handsomely for that and appropriately.
On the other hand, I think the players also have a great respect for what the owners do. As owners, they take significant financial risk, they have shouldered the responsibility to make sure the game continues to grow and flourish, and the players have benefited from their wisdom and the way that they’ve managed the business. So we’re in a position like never before where there’s great respect and understanding of the value of both parties and the fact that by working together you can continue to grow the game successfully, and each party benefits. That is always the trick in labor management negotiations. How do you continue to grow the business so all parties benefit fairly? That’s our objective.
A series of things will happen if we’re not successful. There will not be free agency, which will impact the players. There will be a number of things that I’m sure both sides will consider, that, strategically, I believe will move us away from the negotiating table rather than toward the negotiating table. I have frequently said, and I will be as clear as I can on this, this will get resolved at the negotiating table. All of the other public relations, litigation strategies, congressional strategies, this is about a negotiation. We have to address the issues and find solutions.
Q: There seems to be a massive disconnect between the owners and labor, and trust seems to not exist or at least exist in a very scant amount. Why should fans trust either side when it’s looked at as billionaires arguing with millionaires?
RG: I think at this point, what I hear from fans is that they just want football, and the fans aren’t forgotten here. We want to bring more football—better football—to our fans. And that’s the focus I think both sides have to keep their attention on because we need to get an agreement that works for everybody, that’s fair to everybody, but also continue the great game that we have for our fans. I think they care about just getting an agreement. They don’t care about the details. They just want to make sure that their football is going to appear on Sundays and Mondays and Thursdays. They want to make sure they have the great game they love. That’s our responsibility, and I don’t think anyone is going to feel sorry for any one of us, including yours truly, if we’re not successful at doing that.
Q: Given the rate of injuries we’re seeing during the regular season, how is the push for an 18-game schedule consistent with the concern you express for the long- and short-term health of the players?
RG: We are still staying within our 20-game format. We are not playing 22 games, which is permitted in the current collective bargaining agreement, by the way. We are taking the 20 games that we are looking at, and we are proposing and working with the union and figuring out the best way to do that, and if we can’t do it right, we won’t do it. But consistent with the safety issues, you always have to keep safety as a priority, under any format. Injuries occur in preseason games, so you have to try to look to see what you can do in the off-season. We’ve talked very extensively about this: Do you alter the OTA (Organized Team Activities, or offseason workouts) structure, and what happens within the OTA structure? Do you alter the training camp period? What happens in the regular season? I think all of those things have been addressed by the ownership for the last couple of years. Our committees have been focused on this. All of this is going to help us make better decisions and the right decision to make the game as safe as possible.
Q: In early February 2011, Anschutz Entertainment Group announced a 30-year $700 million naming rights deal with Farmers Insurance. Keeping in mind there have been no stadiums started since 2006, can you look ahead and tell me what a naming rights deal, which would be the largest in history, would mean to bringing football back to Los Angeles? Is this a game changer?
RG: I think it’s obviously a positive development because it’s an important revenue stream, but even with that positive development the financing of the stadium in Los Angeles is still a very difficult proposition. We have to get the collective bargaining agreement addressed in such a way as to make it a smart investment that can be financed to create the kind of economic activity in Los Angeles that I believe can happen if we’re successful, whether it be in downtown or out in the City of Industry. There are some great opportunities for us to continue to grow the game, but we have to recognize that cost is associated with that and address it in a way that incentivizes everyone to make those kinds of investments. I think this is a positive thing for the league, for the players, for the game, and for, most importantly, our fans in Southern California.
Q: As NFL tickets have gotten more expensive, and most fans are really priced out of tickets for games, is the televised game really the heart of what the NFL product is these days? Are you spending more energy on the television product than you did before?
RG: Well, I agree and I don’t agree with you. Where I don’t really agree is that we’ve priced our average fan out. I think NFL tickets remain affordable, they’re priced from a market standpoint that varies from market to market and section to section, so I don’t believe that our fans are priced out of that. What I do agree with is that the media are incredibly important because most fans experience NFL football through some type of media device, obviously television being the primary, with radio, online, and increasingly mobile devices. This is the best time in my lifetime to be an NFL fan because there is so much media coverage and there is so much focus around NFL football and information around NFL football, and I think that’s great for the fans. We also continue to focus on broadcast policies that make our games available to the largest possible audience. That serves us well, and we’ll continue to have a focus on that. Some pretty big markets don’t have access to cable television or satellite television. So it’s paramount to us that we continue to have our product available on free network TV.
Q: What are some of the innovations that you envision with respect to the NFL’s digital media and overall technology future? For instance, iPads, graphs being used during games to diagram plays, and iPads used in games by team personnel to receive X-ray results. For ownership, perhaps some password-protected apps for showing and sending confidential league business information, and perhaps for fans, the ability to purchase special helmets allowing them to listen to quarterback huddle plays while the quarterback is talking?
RG: You talk about something that is critical to the National Football League, and that’s innovation. The National Football League has had great success, but to continue that success, we have to innovate everything we do. That means the game of football, that means the experience for our fans in the stadium, it means the experience for our fans at home. One of the great things about technology is it has made the game greater for our fans. They have new ways of experiencing the game of football. I think one of the greatest innovations in television history, frankly, is the RedZone. It’s an extraordinary product that is now going to be available at some point on iPads and on your telephone. That’s a great thing for fans. There has never been a better time to be a fan of the NFL because you can get football, more football, to so many other platforms.
But it also creates challenges. The experience at home on a high-definition television with super slo-mo and that great technology, that makes that experience wonderful. We’re also trying to get people to come into our stadiums and enjoy the game in the stadiums. So we have to put money into stadiums to make sure that the digital opportunities that you’re talking about are available to fans in the stadiums so that experience can compete against the experience at home. That’s a challenge for us going forward. I think it’s a challenge for all the sports.
But we can meet that challenge because we have a great product. This is why I’m so optimistic about the future of the NFL. All these devices are going to just allow people to engage with the NFL more deeply. When that happens, there are more fans, the game continues to grow, and the popularity of the game continues to grow. That’s a great thing for all of us.
Q: What’s the view on fantasy football at the league level?
RG: In the fantasy following of the NFL Draft, who would have ever thought that you’d get the kind of audience, the kind of interest that you have in the NFL Draft? You know, when I first started in the NFL, we had the draft in the fall, over in a hotel, and there was very little interest, and what happened? Now, it’s one of the highest-rated programs in sports television, bar none.
But that’s the other thing that we’re trying to build. Around these mega events, there becomes such an extraordinary interest in, you know, part of it’s reality television, part of it’s the anticipation of the event itself, part of it is trying to make your best guess at what’s going to happen. That’s what makes sports great, and I think that’s why people love to get inside and see how people build a football team. They love to follow their team and debate about whether they’ve made a good decision or a bad decision on a draft-eligible player—that’s all part of getting our fans closer to the game and engaging them.
Q: How much time do you personally spend with fans? Do you convene roundtables? When you go to games, do you ever go up in the cheap seats and talk to people?
RG: Yes, I do. I think it’s very important. At the AFC Championship game up in New England, I went with my 14-year-old niece, and we sat in two different locations, one for the first half at the top of the stadium and then the second half in the end zone. Last week, I was in Buffalo and we walked out into the parking lot to see what was going on in the pregame period; they’re quite famous for their pregame partying there in Buffalo. When I go to games, I try to get out and see the fans. I walk the corridors with everybody else, and people have comments, and I make comments, and that’s great for us. We want the fans to know we listen to them.
Q: What is the pro football business going to look like 10 years from now?
RG: I think it’s going to develop from a media standpoint primarily. Digital media, new technologies, are going to make the delivery of our games and the information around our games so much more accessible. Growing up in the Get Smart era where people used to laugh about Maxwell Smart for talking into his shoe, look at it. Now people are talking on telephones the size of your palm. And as video becomes more and more prevalent on those devices, it’s great for fans. It’s going to give fans ever-increasing ways to engage with the NFL and sports in general and news in general. Our fans might even be in danger of becoming oversaturated with information.
Q: Is the NFL going to expand?
RG: I don’t know. Going on 10 years, it’s tough to say. Our international business continues to expand; I think we’re being very calculated and focused on how we do that from both our strategy and execution, and I would not at all be surprised. I’m not sure about a 10-year horizon, but it’s possible that we would have an international franchise.
Our success with the games we stage in London now each year continues to amaze me. Coming off of a first game, you always wonder whether it was just the novelty of the event. It wasn’t. These are hardcore, sophisticated fans who understand the game and who I think had a wonderful time. The demand for tickets was extraordinary. We had a tailgate party with 20,000 people, and we were turning people away before the game. There was a parade. The game was outstanding, and the fans knew how to react. I think we have a very sophisticated fan base over there that I think potentially could support an NFL franchise.
Q: What about Latin America? Is that an important growth market for you as well?
RG: Absolutely. The Hispanic base, the Latin American fans—we think it’s got a lot of promise for us, and we put a lot of focus on those markets, in particular Mexico, but as you look farther south, down into Latin America, we think there’s a great deal of potential there as Steve Ross is pointing out.
Q: What will your legacy look like—will you be remembered as the law and order guy?
RG: I’ve got to tell you, I don’t spend three seconds thinking about my legacy. No one who’s doing a job should be thinking about their legacy. You’re not doing your job properly. So from my standpoint, that’s something to be answered when I get to the end of my career and I move on, ’cause let’s face it, this is a temporary job. The focus right now is for me to do the best job that I can and have the greatest impact on the game. When you leave, then people will have their own determinations about what your legacy is.