No professional sports league is more shameless in chasing money than the NFL. The league will walk a thousand miles over the backs of its fans in order to scrape an extra cent out of each of our pockets. Football is the 21st century American pastime, and as opposed to building a symbiotic feedback loop with us like any normal business would, the relationship is closer to Stockholm syndrome.
Last night, the Chargers finally dug in the knife they’ve been holding against the back of their fanbase over the past several years, and accepted the Los Angeles Rams’ (formerly of St. Louis, and prior to that, formerly of Los Angeles) offer to be tenants in their new sprawling Inglewood complex that will serve as the de facto west coast branch of the NFL’s headquarters. The move is a no-brainer financially, as the Rams franchise value doubled after moving to Los Angeles last year, going from the 28th most valuable NFL franchise to its 6th.
Despite the initial excitement of the Rams move, it quickly wore off, as once it became clear that the team was still the same bad to mediocre squad, the crowd thinned out.
This is not reflected in attendance figures, as they are based on ticket sales, and the Rams finished second behind the Cowboys, who play in the largest professional stadium in America. The hard truth of the matter is that it doesn't matter who shows up to the games, because the NFL has a system in place to make wheelbarrows full of cash even if the stadium were completely empty.
Personal seat licenses are the new rage in the NFL, as they charge you for the right to pay for your season tickets. When the San Francisco 49ers built their new stadium 40 miles south of San Francisco a couple years ago, they charged people between $2,000 and $8,000 for the right to pay for their seats. This column by Dieter Kurtenbach of Fox Sports does a great job detailing how the NFL has the game rigged regardless of what we fans do.
The seat licenses earned the 49ers $530 million. The team also sold out their full allotment of luxury boxes, worth $400 million.
That's close to a billion dollar payday, and we're not even accounting for the increase in corporate sponsorships, parking costs (it adds up), in-stadium revenue, and the estimated $77 million annually from the actual sale of tickets (chump change).
In all, the 49ers were able to pay off their share of their new stadium and massively profit before the team even took the field.
Revenue jumped 160 percent, to $427 million, between 2013, the team's last year in Candlestick Park, to 2014, the first year in Levi's Stadium. The value of the 49ers franchise increased by nearly 70 percent ($1.6 billion to $2.7 billion) year-over-year as well, all because of the new digs.
The NFL is playing with fire. Not only have they painted themselves as being friendly to domestic violence abusers (so long as they can play), but they have over-saturated the market to the point where they have alienated their most die hard fans. Monday Night Football used to be an institution, largely because it was the only other time of the week you could watch football other than Sunday afternoons. Now we have Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, and the clusterfuck that is Thursday Night Football. The NFL still calls it Thursday Night Football when the broadcast takes place on days other than Thursday—the final two weeks of the season brought Thursday Night Football on Thursday night, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon, and Sunday night.
For die hard football fans like myself, even this is too much. Unless my favorite team is playing, I don't watch Thursday Night Football. Playing football on a Thursday night produces a dramatically inferior product because the short week reduces the complexity of the game plan, and gives players less time to physically recover from America's most brutal sport. Its TV partners have raised these alarm bells as the ratings put the writing on the wall, and now the league is considering getting rid of football on Thursday nights altogether.
Football isn't going away any time soon. But the NFL has established itself as unfriendly to its fanbase, and in their eyes, we simply exist in order for 32 billionaires to further enrich themselves. I grew up in Denver, and the Broncos are practically a religion there, largely because in the 1970's, they put Denver on a national stage by beating John Madden's Raiders en route to the Super Bowl. The 80's and 90's brought the John Elway era, as the town rallied around an all-time great QB who helped establish the Broncos as one of the gold standards of the NFL.
In short, our immense pride as one of America's biggest little cities is directly tied to the team. Even though the owner, Pat Bowlen, has a reputation for being one of the more humane NFL oligarchs, he still threatened to move the franchise unless we bulldozed historic Mile High Stadium to build him a new stadium. Like so many other fanbases, we caved before Bowlen could finish his sentence. The stadium which exuded a certain character, and helped me fall in love with football and Denver as a child is now a parking lot, replaced by a stadium that local columnist Woody Paige has referred to as The Diaphragm, due to its resemblance to the contraceptive device.
The NFL may be king right now, but the league runs itself as one large cash grab, and the Chargers and Rams moving to a city where there are very few fans of theirs is a perfect example of the league's contempt for the people who give it life. They are making money hand over fist, so who cares if fans are beginning to feel alienated from the NFL?
If these 32 oligarchs cared for the long-term health of the league, this moment would constitute a true crisis. Attendance is down. TV ratings are down. The number of advertisements during the games are up. They just spent the past few years bungling domestic violence cases from Jovan Belcher shooting himself in the Kansas City Chiefs parking lot after murdering his girlfriend, to Ray Rice, to the slam dunk case that should have been Greg Hardy.
This weekend will bring more uncomfortable optics on this front, as the Kansas City Chiefs rookie spark plug, Tyreek Hill, is already one of the most exciting players in the league, and his conviction for punching and strangling his pregnant girlfriend in college hangs over his every action on the field.
The NFL is a monopoly protected business, but they do not have a monopoly on football, and the college game gets more popular every year, despite its obvious problems. The NBA is providing a perfect example of building goodwill with your fanbase while expanding the league, and at this rate, there is no doubt in this die hard football fan’s mind that the NBA will overtake the NFL in popularity over the next 20 years.
Jacob Weindling is Paste’s business, media, and politics editor. You can follow him on Twitter @jakeweindling.