Thursday, September 28, 2006

Football 201: Advanced Techniques in League Competition (aka "Can You Beat the NFL at its own Game?")

What's Playing in my Head: "Never There", by Cake

Quote of the Day: "It's only when you look at an ant through a magnifying glass on a sunny day that you realise how often they burst into flames." - Harry Hill

Okay, so I'm back from work, and on the football topic again. Saints rejoice.

We left off with the whole media/TV deal, which I figure is a pretty important part of any new league. Too many leagues have failed because they didn't lock down a decent media contract that targeted the audience they wanted to reach. The USFL, to their credit, actually got a pretty decent arrangement with ABC and ESPN when they started (their problem was more of being a spring league, and having too many teams spread out too thin).

The WFL of the '70s was a complete dud in large part because they didn't have a decent TV contract, and Arena football stayed small until they got a better deal with ESPN (and NBC). The XFL's contract was good with the NBC game of the week, but they heavily relied on secondary stations (like Channel 20 in DC) to show the other games - which rarely promoted the league in the first place. On the other hand, the AFL succeeded because they got a good TV deal with ABC, and wound up merging into the NFL.

Point being, leagues can be made or broken because of the exposure that they get from being on TV. The NFL, in fact, draws most of their power in the sports market from its media contract and smart marketing. The BFL would have to have a major contract and marketing presence to work, and to have the kind of high profile that it'd need to hope to compete with the 10,000-ton giant (aka, the NFL). So basically, the question becomes, how does the BFL get some network to give it fistfuls of cash on the promise that there will be, at some point, a reason for people to watch it on said network?

Three ways I can think of:

1.) Sign at least 2 high-profile players to each team. (Note that this doesn't mean that teams should sign the Peyton Mannings of the world to $20 million a year contracts - just sign guys who are moderately well-known and have NFL cred) Guys who need second chances at proving themselves would be perfect. A guy like Jeff Garcia, for example. Or a guy like Ricky Williams. Or Stephen Davis. You get the idea. It'd also be good for the league to set its sights on swiping 1 or 2 really big names (ie, Keyshawn Johnson, Randy Moss, Edgerrin James, etc. etc.) from the NFL. And getting players on teams close to where they're from. Central franchise ownership would be helpful in making all of this happen.

2.) Pour money into a set of funny, eyecatching ads. Don't try to be XFL II to the whole nation - the BFL can save that macho stuff for promo spots on a target network like Spike TV, which caters to testosterone-pounding raw masculinity. But also don't try to pretend that the league has got the best gameplay - it can't, and it won't. (And most importantly, casual viewers won't care) Best thing to do is to try to suck people by getting them to know the league brand without them knowing that they're being sold on something new - the ads for Major League Soccer, when it first started up, are perfect examples of this. And don't skimp on the media dollars, either.

3.) Find a media advocate in each community - one on the print side (ie, a prominent columnist), one on the radio side, and one on the TV side (ie, local stations that people listen to/watch). Obviously, this would be harder in the major markets (ie, New York, LA), which aren't hurting for news. But in places like Las Vegas, Portland, San Antonio and even Detroit, this should be do-able. (It's amazing how lazy reporters can be - feed them with buffets, inside access to players and coaches and being "The Official Station of the San Antonio Scorpions", and watch the stories roll in) The point is, the BFL needs media people to sell its teams to their local communities for it, for free. I'd even say that if the league can't find these sort of connections in a city they choose, it should drop that city and pick up another one where connections are stronger.

All of these things add value to the TV contract because people are talking about the league, and are more likely to tune in - not just for the first 1-2 games, like with the XFL, but for most of the season. If the BFL could sink its hooks into even a fifth of the football fans in this country, college or pro, it'd be well on its way to establishing a foothold.

And that's all you'd need to start. Beating the NFL at its own game will never be an overnight task - it'll take years of hard combat. But it starts with getting established and letting people know that the league exists, that it's legitimate and worth watching. Getting on TV in really visible places, and all over the media (including print and radio) is the first step in doing that.

Now...Is there anyone with a billion or two to spare in the audience?


At September 29, 2006 4:41 PM, Blogger Sean Tubbs said...

As someone commented on another of these posts, where is the talent going to come from? It's already hard to find enough talent to field 32 decent teams. I also don't know if there's enough mainstream media to really get on board. I can understand the desire to get teams into markets currently underserved.

My own fantasy league would consist of adding eight more teams to the league, which would be reformatted to consist of two tiers, modeled along the lines of English football. The top three teams in the bottom league go up, and the bottom three teams in the top league go down. This would add extra incentive to players to play well, for everyone would want to get paid more, and not to be in the B league. A teams and B teams would still play each other, but would work towards different championship games.

At September 29, 2006 8:56 PM, Blogger B.C. said...

There's no doubt that the level of competition would be slightly lower than the NFL to start. But football is a sport with plenty of players available. There are 120+ Division I-A schools out there that graduate 2,000+ football players each year. The NFL draft only takes the top 250-300 players in the nation. Plus, there are plenty of NFL players riding the bench that could use a second chance in the new league. Clearly there are players available.

Also, as the league's profile increases, top NCAA prospects and NFL players are more likely to cross over to the new league. This is exactly what happened with the AFL in the '60s.

Relegation, IMO, is a kinky little concept which is fun for fantasy leagues, but one that won't work in practice in American sports. Our sports model is based around the idea of being able to win a championship right away, this year, right now. Why would anyone ever go to see to see a team (or watch them on TV?) that has absolutely zero chance of going to the Super Bowl (or whatever the major championship is)? (look at the attendance record of the Arizona Cardinals throughout this decade for the answer).

At October 02, 2006 9:13 AM, Anonymous Mediocre Fred said...

But, but... didn't you just mock the AAFL (in a subsequent post) for going after non-NFL-caliber recent college graduates? These are the same players you'd be going after? Okay. Ask Vince McMahon how that worked out for him. (His original idea, which was actually a smart one, was to buy out the CFL and use their talent.)

You're right that once the league increases its visibility, more established players will start jumping from the NFL... if the money is there.

I agree with you, Brian, about relegation... it's a cute fantasy, but in order for it to work in America, you'd essentially have to completely alter the structure of our sports leagues, and America's outlook on the whole majors vs. minors idea. In America, as Jim Bouton once said, "The minor leagues are all very minor."


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