Sunday, October 10, 2010

32 to 40: My Completely Ridiculous But Vaguely Plausible Master Plan to Expand the National Football League to 40 Teams

Editor's Note: I'll be honest--I cooked up this plan about three or four years ago when the financial stability of the NFL was fairly secure, all the teams were making money hand over fist, and seasons of continual sellouts were the norm. Since the recession, however, gaping holes have sprung up in the viability of some NFL franchises in addition to layoffs at NFL corporate, making my core argument--that the massive popularity and profitability of the NFL in even the smallest markets could easily absorb expansion teams--somewhat shaky. I'm still presenting it here, since I believe many of the current issues are a result of 1) the recession, and 2) owners making themselves look less profitable to put themselves in a better negotiating position for the pending lockout. So while the problems are a little more acute, I also think that the following plan is still fundamentally sound.

It's the bye week here in Pittsburgh, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to dust off a proposal for a restructuring of the National Football League. The NFL is the most popular sport in America, and has by far the greatest television viewers and per-game attendance. Sports media more or less exclusively covers football--with the exception of the World Series and a smattering of hockey games--from the middle of August through the Superbowl. The NFL, like all other major league sports organizations, slowly expanded as television markets expanded and its popularity increased.

My proposal: expand the team to 40 teams from its current 32.

Now, there are a lot of things that could go wrong with this proposal. But I think a lot of things can be properly addressed, and the good far outweighs the bad. So let's take a look at how this could be done.

First, a question. Expanding the league by nearly 25% seems insane from both a purity of sport and a business standpoint. Why?
Well, it's mostly due to the unique popularity of football. Unlike the other three major sports in America, there are only 16 games in a regular season. This is why ticket prices are relatively high; you only get eight chances a year to catch a non-playoff game in your home town.

That said, television revenue has been rising astronomically as live attendance slightly falls. (I expect the reality--live attendance flattens and then ticket prices rise--to occur as the economy gets better.) Money is money, though, so there doesn't appear to be any reason that revenue from ticket prices should fall even as more and more people watch the games.

There is a lot of untapped popularity in smaller markets. Evidence of this can be found with the attendance figures and revenue. While it's true that some of the markets have seen blackouts recently, there was a time in which all games sold out for the entire season for all games. Even those smaller markets-- such as Tampa Bay and Jacksonville--that are struggling with attendance, they are still largely profitable franchises. And as the economy improves, look for all of the current cash flow issues to resolve themselves.

Won't a massive expansion dilute the fan base?
Unlikely, if done properly. The main benefit of this expansion is that there will be more games for more weeks--which means more money for everyone, and more football for fans to watch. Unlike the other major professional sports, most people want to watch all of their team's games--again, the NFL's 16-game season is unique in this regard. (And they also want to watch--for a limited amount--other city's teams play as well, as evidenced by the popularity of Monday Night Football.) Expanding this to 18 or 20 games isn't that radical. It's also a plan that is supported by the NFL--they are currently looking to add two games to the season (with the possible reduction of pre-season games to compensate.)

The main trick is that you don't want to take viewers away from one team so they can root for a new team. Depending on demographics and geography, this shouldn't be too hard to avoid.

The other benefit to this is creating NFL fans from college football. There are a lot of smaller markets that are crazy over college football--because there's no pro franchise in their geographic area. From the NFL's perspective, if these eyeballs go from a Saturday game to a Sunday game, they're not losing much of anything if at all. (Most likely, they'll still watch both.)

And don't forget the brute force of numbers--our population has risen by almost 25% since 1990, and there only three new teams have been added since then. If we go by team-per-population statistics, we could expand up to 36 teams and roughly match 1990 levels. 40 teams would put us below 1990 levels, but not by much.

Won't this thin out the talent pool for professional players?
Ah, now we're getting to the more problematic issues. This one, I'm afraid, I don't have a ready answer for, except that I think it's not as big an issue as people think. Sure, with an eight team expansion, you're looking at increasing the total player rosters by 450-500 players, and these are players that clearly weren't good enough to be in the NFL before. And yet the same thing could have been said at any time in the past two decades of major pro sports expansions--and somehow they've all managed to get 30-32 teams in competitive play.

The point above is also valid: with 25% more population, there's 25% more potential players out there. And while they all aren't NFL-quality players, the CFL, AFL, and USFL all have some pretty good players that could shine in a pro setting. And there's always the team dynamic--may mediocre players become stars when placed in the right setting, and sometimes being surrounded by huge stars stunts their own development. Sometimes the opposite is true, of course, but it is a factor.

Why eight teams? Why not four? Or Less?
Mostly because I think the NFL's current way of scheduling is by far the best in pro sports. If you don't have 40 teams, it screws this system up. We'll get into more details below.

How would you get eight teams in play? Won't that upset pretty much everything?
Yes, it will, and no, I don't have a good answer. My preference would be to maintain the eight teams as sort of a minor league, with the top two teams granted NFL status every two years to slowly absorb them into the system. It may throw off the system for a few seasons but it will be doable. Just throwing eight brand new teams clearly isn't going to happen, so I don't know what a clean solution is.

Trust me: I'm certain there are more issues to overcome, but the main ones I've listed above. First and foremost is financial viability, and I think the fan base of football is more than enough to absorb eight new teams. But how do we make certain of that?

Where will the new teams be located?
This is the heart of my argument, and I'll admit that I don't have all the data. For example, I can pull population statistics, but there's no ready access to how likely people will fill up a stadium, or how angry residents will be for funding a new stadium. So I am going to present a few different scenarios.

First, let's look at The List. Here is a list of the current NFL teams with the population rankings. (For my purposes, I'm using the MSA list--Metropolitan Statistical Area, which more or less includes core cities and their suburbs--compiled by the census, which I think is a more accurate representation of population base. My original list was pulled from media market size, but there seemed to be some strange anomalies so I switched to base population. Even if you get data that includes distant suburbs and broadcast ranges and the like, it's not going to be fundamentally different than what is below.) Also note that since Green Bay is a special case, I'm lumping it in with Milwaukee since they roughly share the same media market. Skipped numbers are those without a team.

1. New York: Giants, Jets
3. Chicago: Bears
4. Dallas: Cowboys
5. Philadelphia: Eagles
6. Houston: Texans
7. Miami: Dolphins
8. Washington, DC: Redskins
9. Atlanta: Falcons
10. Boston: Patriots
11. Detroit: Lions
12. Phoenix: Cardinals
13. San Francisco: 49ers, Raiders
15. Seattle: Seahawks
16. Minneapolis: Vikings
17. San Diego: Chargers
18. St. Louis: Rams
19. Tampa: Buccaneers
20. Baltimore: Ravens
21. Denver: Broncos
22. Pittsburgh: Steelers
24. Cincinnati: Bengals
26. Cleveland: Browns
29. Kansas City: Chiefs
33. Charlotte: Panthers
34. Indianapolis: Colts
38. Nashville: Titans
39. Milwaukee: Packers
40. Jacksonville: Jaguars
46. New Orleans: Saints
50. Buffalo: Bills

The easy thing to do is simply to fill in the missing slots until you reach eight teams. That's not necessarily a good idea, but I'll present it here anyway. I'm calling this Plan X, because Plan Stupid was already taken by the Army.

Plan X: Expansions Based On U.S. Population Only (population rank in brackets)
Los Angeles, CA [2]
Riverside/San Bernardino, CA [14]
Portland, OR [23]
Sacramento, CA [25]
Orlando, FL [27]
San Antonio, TX [28]
Las Vegas, NV [30]
San Jose, CA [31]

There are already problems with this--some of the media markets are overlapping and others just aren't good prospects for a football team. This is why we're going to get a little bit more creative with this list.

First, I'm going to make some assumptions, which may or may not be accurate:

1) The NFL is interested in going international. This is more or less their official position. We'll shy away from Europe for now, since I think it's impractical; NFL Europa wasn't a success, but fielding one or two pilot teams might not be a bad idea. For now, though, that seems a little bit too ambitious.
2) It's OK if not all the games sell out. I'm sure the NFL feels differently, but there is more money to be made in new markets than there is making sure all the seats are sold. This will require a revision of blackout rules.
3) No relocations--at least yet. We'll see more of that point below.

Anyway, here's what is not on the list:
Anything new in Florida. Florida already has three teams, and two of those teams are struggling. Orlando doesn't seem like a football market, but I could also see Disney liking the idea of Dad stopping by to see the game while Mom is with Princess at the Magic Kingdom. So I'm leaving Orlando off the list under the assumption that if they want a team, they'll just move from Jacksonville or Tampa Bay.

Anything new besides LA in California. Sure, Cali has enough population to support probably three or four new teams, but I'm not a big fan of having more than one team in a city. (I don't even like DC and Baltimore both having teams and NY and Oakland/San Francisco already effectively share a market.) And since the vast majority of the population in California is in the southern part, there would be enough overlap that they might as well be sharing a city. Yes, Sacramento and San Jose are far enough away they could probably get away with it, but I don't envision California with more than four teams. (California has approximately 10% of the population, so having 10% of the teams would peg them no more than four or five at the most anyway.)

Less Teams in the East. Looking at any map of the NFL, the teams are heavily concentrated in the east. The population has slowly been shifting to the south and west over the past few decades and that trend is set to continue. Even though some of the markets missing on the list above are clearly in the eastern/New England area, the future of demographics states this will not be where the lucrative markets will be at--we don't need more Clevelands or Buffalos.

So, based on these halfway respectable assumptions, here is my exhaustive list of new NFL team expansions. I've used a little bit of creativity here, and not all of my choices are sound. I have a "safe" list after my own personal preference list that takes some of the riskier recommendations out.

First off, the obvious: Los Angeles. The second-highest  populated city in the nation needs a team.

Since it seems the NFL is halfway there anyway, Toronto is the next expansion. The market is clearly there. The only obstacles are the Bills and the CFL; the CFL may not want the competition, and the Buffalo market overlaps with Toronto. I am assuming there are no relocations, but this would be the most obvious. A team can probably be supported in both Toronto and Buffalo.  Toronto would be between Miami and Houston on the list above.

Since we are looking internationally, here's the most far-out recommendation: Mexico City. Mexico is mildly popular over gridiron football anyway (there is a reason Inez Sainz was in the Jets locker room, and many colleges have some fairly popular programs). Even if they are only 1% enthusiastic, the massive population of Mexico City--you know, the most populated city on earth--could easily fill a stadium. Granted, there are issues with traveling to Mexico right now, the income of Mexicans may not support high ticket prices, and there's always the language barrier, but there is also the potential for a massive amount of money to be made. I think if nurtured correctly, this could be a very lucrative addition. (I'm open for this team to be in a city closer to the border, but I'm not familiar enough with the demographics of Mexican cities to point out a best option.) Mexico City would be #1 in population in the above list.

My next city is Honolulu. Wait, what? Hawaii? This is a bit of a gamble, but there are two good reasons. First, I can't imagine any owners, players, or media ever complaining about having to travel to Hawaii for games. The Pro Bowl was played there every year, so it's not like they are unfamiliar with holding games there. Second, there is a rather disproportionate affinity for football in Polynesian circles, with American Samoa contributing a small but notable number of players in professional leagues. Honolulu's population ranking is 55--not great, but supportable.

Las Vegas is another risky choice. It's one of the few reasonably large and geographically distinct markets with no major sport team. Of course, there is an obvious reasons for that--all the major sports do not want gambling in any way associated with their sport. While I'm sympathetic to that argument, I think at this point it is overwrought. Las Vegas has become less a gambling haven and more a general entertainment city, and cheap flights and promises of a good time regardless of a team's performance would make this a premium "destination" city for football games. In addition, it's not like gambling stays in Nevada--gambling and football are all so global any team could just as easily be manipulated by bookies; physical presence in Las Vegas no longer matters all that much. The stigma is slowly going away from Las Vegas, and the NFL should capitalize on this, soaking up all of the pro sports glory while the other organizations dither. Ownership may be an issue, since the NFL forbids gambling interests to control a franchise, but that's not insurmountable. Las Vegas is #30 in population.

The five cities listed above are the "riskiest" ones. The only honorable mention would be a city like Omaha or Des Moines to represent the Midwest. They are nuts about college football, but their population is small and dispersed enough that I don't think it's viable. These are cities that may be worth trying out as a pilot and if it doesn't work out move it somewhere else.

I would also not mind if the riskier choices--namely Mexico City, Honolulu, or Las Vegas--be NFL-owned until any issues and/or financial viability can be worked out. The eventual ideal would be to sell it, but having caretaker ownership of the team may be for the best.

The last three slots are rather unimaginative; at this point, it's just a judgment call based on population, geography, and football culture: San Antonio [28] (a third team for Texas, a football-crazy and highly populated state that needs a third team); Oklahoma City [44] (a small but growing market, which has already snagged an NBA team); and Salt Lake City [48] (another small but growing city with an NBA franchise with a seemingly disproportionate number of NFL players from Utah and Idaho).

To be fair, other cities could just as easily be chosen: Portland, OR [23] (a larger market than these others but close to Seattle and not really a football town); Austin [35] (Yet another Texas team, and probably the least football-friendly city in the state); Memphis [41] (does Tennessee really need two teams? Then again, does Missouri?); Louisville, KY [42]; and Birmingham, AL [47] (representing the football-heavy Deep South but with a small, relatively poor, and shrinking population).

So Plan 40 is the following:
1. Los Angeles
2. Toronto
3. Mexico City
4. Honolulu
5. Las Vegas
6. Salt Lake City
7. Oklahoma City
8. San Antonio

If you want to excise out the riskier options, a brute-force Plan Safe could be:
1. Los Angeles
2. Salt Lake City
3. Oklahoma City
4. Portland
5. Birmingham
6. Memphis
7. Louisville
8. San Antonio

That said, there are a lot of iffy teams towards the bottom of the Safe List. Even OKC and SLC are gambles on Plan 40, though I think it could work. I'm all for letting things sort of shake out--i.e., if Birmingham or Louisville doesn't work out, let them move to a city that's willing to take them. I realize it's a lot easier said than done--no city is going to build a stadium for a team that's going to move in four years--but it can all be worked out.

What about relocations?
This may reduce the attractiveness of the plans listed above. Some teams are more or less move-ready, but I would prefer they more or less stay where they are. Obviously if a market can't fill up a stadium, it needs to go, but having owners race to the biggest cities should be something to avoid. The only exceptions are the ones noted above: Buffalo can move to Toronto, and one of the Florida teams can move to Orlando.

Because this proposal is a bit risky, I wouldn't mind having some sort of flexible arrangements with the new teams. Creating a team in, say, Portland, might be a tough sell. It's expensive to get a franchise and build and staff a stadium, and owners are going to want a commitment. On the other hand, I would like to see a test-market approach, where most teams will stay where they are at, but those that struggle can sort of shift around until they find their place. I don't know if that's practical or not, but a dialing-down of expectations and possible NFL ownership might help.

Won't this change football too much?
Probably not, but there can always be problems. It won't matter from a gameplay standpoint, and I think sports purists are a little bit too powerful in the industry. Times change, and the game has to change with it. Look at baseball; it is old and creaky and permeated with scandal. Hockey needed a top-down reboot after the lockout, and now it's one of the fastest-growing sports. The NFL is popular now, but that could change dramatically, even in the space of a decade. At the very least, demographic changes--mostly with a population shift to the south and west--will be huge. New teams will need to be added; the east will simply be a bunch of post-industrial cities having issues filling up a stadium, but strong and popular enough that no one will be willing to move a franchise. Unless the NFL wants to have a conference full of Buffalos, they are going to either have to create new teams or relocate old ones; and relocating teams is immensely difficult.

Probably the biggest change is to change the perspective of attendance and profitability. The model will have to be maintained that smaller markets can not only survive but thrive. The salary cap helps, but a rethinking about blackout policies and revenue sharing will need to occur. The NFL has done remarkably well so far, but one of the main sticking points is going to be managing small markets. I can't imagine why Jacksonville, for example, has to close off seats to avoid a blackout. Why not adjust ticket prices? The NFL and owners don't want to do it, but it's a perfectly reasonable mechanism to use. Teams will have to become more adventurous with their pricing models; and with the increase television viewership, the focus on live attendance should be changed to general revenue maximization.

What would be the new schedule?
Since the entire point of expanding to 40 teams is to maintain the NFL's nearly perfect scheduling arrangement, we now have to look at how the schedule would be maintained. We have two options that will have two different results: adding a team to each of the existing teams, and adding a whole new division.

Here's how adding a team would look. Note that I'm using the teams from Plan 40, and it doesn't really matter where the new teams will fall. Let's take the NFC:

New York
San Francisco
Green Bay
Tampa Bay
New Orleans
St. Louis
Oklahoma City
San Antonio
Los Angeles

Following the standard rules as of now, we'll look at Dallas as a representative team.

Within division: 8 games (NY, DC, Philly, and OKC twice each)
Rotating Division within conference: 5 games (We'll take South: Atlanta, Carolina, TB, NO, and SA)
Rotating Division in other conference; 5 games (We'll take AFC West: Denver, KC, Oakland, SD, and Honolulu)
Within Conference of same-ranked teams: 2 games (Chicago and Seattle).

Total: 20 Games

The other option is to add a whole new division. For our purposes, I'll just lump all the new teams into one conference called "Central." We'll go with Dallas again.

Oklahoma City
New York
San Francisco
Green Bay
San Antonio
Tampa Bay
Los Angeles
New Orleans
St. Louis

Within Division: 6 games (NY, DC, and Philly, twice each)
Rotating Division within conference: 4 games (Atlanta, Carolina, TB, and NO)
Rotating Division in other conference: 4 games (Denver, KC, Oakland, and SD)
Within Conference of same-ranked teams: 3 games (Chicago, OKC, and Seattle)

Total: 17 games

I think either one is an acceptable plan. The latter is probably more realistic; 20 games is probably too many for gridiron football, and adding one new division will disrupt things much less than tacking a new team onto each division--in the example above, an existing team would only play one of the new teams in a season. (Granted, one team would have to play the whole new division within the rotating schedule for each conference.)

So there it is. Certainly, the main issues remain unresolved: mostly getting current owners to extend the marketplace at the risk of diluting their own revenue base. Personally, I don't think that is likely, or at the very least the amount of revenue they lose from fan base is offset by the overall increase in the popularity of football; with things such as team licensing and television revenue, this is a real benefit. Obviously, I do not have all of the internal accountings of either the NFL or the individual teams.

This is, of course, more or less an academic exercise. I think the long-term viability of the plan is reasonably sound, but the objections of owners and the uncertainty of the future of the sport will most likely grind any reforms to a halt.

So I submit this to you, the reader: Thoughts? Issues? Recommendations? I, of course, am aware that there are probably mountains of legal reasons why this plan may not work, but I also assume that when there is money to be made by-laws can be amended.

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