Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The NFL: Could Growth Obsession Become its Downfall?

The National Football League has never been more popular in the United States.  The league enjoys record ratings and lucrative television contracts.  Long ago, the league surpassed major league baseball as the national pastime.  However, many observers have noted a substantial decline in the quality of play recently.  Are such observations just the usual nostalgic "it ain't like the glory days" comments, or is there some truth to the comments?   That's hard to tell at the moment, though the league does appear to have an inequality not seen in some time (record number of 6-0 teams at this point in the season comes with an incredible amount of futility as well).  

What could be driving a decline in the quality of play?  I would hypothesize that the obsession with revenue growth has diluted quality... something we see in many industries.  The NFL is not immune to that phenomenon.   How has revenue growth obsession damaged quality?   One reason may be that the desire for growth has led to a huge shift in emphasis toward offense.   Fantasy sports have contributed greatly to that emphasis on offense.   As the emphasis has shifted toward increasing scoring, the league has become very pass happy.  The running game has diminished in importance.  How does that lead to decreased quality?  Well, for one thing, the incredible emphasis on passing offense means that one player, the quarterback, is more important than ever.   The quarterback has always been the most important position on the field, but now the critical need for superb play at that one position is elevated substantially.   In the past, you could win in multiple ways.   You could run the ball in a dominant fashion.  You could have a monster defense.  Today, the old adage "run the ball and stop the run" just does not apply.   If you do not have a superb quarterback, you are going to struggle to win consistently.   Recall that quarterbacks such as Mark Rypien, Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer won Super Bowls in the past.  That seems increasingly difficult in this new era.  The problem, then, is that the league does not have enough quarterbacks who can play at a very high level.  This year, Peyton Manning has suffered a decline in skills due to age and injury, and other top QBs (Luck, Roethlisberger, Brees) have been injured or have played poorly.  So, in a rush to drive revenue growth, the league made itself more dependent on one position, the quarterback.  However, it does not have enough excellent quarterbacks to maintain a high level of play.  

That's my hypothesis.  The NFL is not immune to the basic tradeoff that many firms face... top line obsession can lead to brand and quality dilution.  The ratings continue to soar, but will this problem eventually lead to a loss of viewers?    I don't know... I still watch, but then again, I have the privilege of watching the greatest quarterback of all time each week.

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