ATLANTA – As usual, NFL owners gathered for league meetings this week with all sorts of issues, challenges and embarrassments providing a backdrop.
It’s no wonder they call it The Shield. There’s always something to defend and deflect.
The deflector-in-chief, Roger Goodell, illustrated why he’s paid the big bucks as he faced an onslaught of questions related to the buffet of controversies and gave up very little.
Investigating Watson, the new Cleveland Browns quarterback who faces civil lawsuits from 22 female massage therapists alleging various forms of sexual misconduct?
“I can’t give you a timeline,” Goodell said after the meetings ended late Tuesday.
Fellow NFL owners so disgusted with Snyder, the Washington owner, that some have mulled whether it’s possible to seek to force him to sell his franchise?
“I’m not aware of that at all,” Goodell maintained. “I don’t respond much to speculation, particularly one that I don’t know has any fact basis.”
What about the probe into Ross, the Miami Dolphins owner accused by Flores of seeking to violate the integrity of the game by offering “tanking” bonuses to lose games?
“There’s not any update on that,” he said.
No doubt, the serious issues are piling up, and The Shield is taking on some fresh mud.
Yet when the cameras are on, nobody dances at a podium quite like Goodell, who takes the hits for his bosses, as if the blows he has taken for his questionable handling of crises over the years isn’t enough. For all of that, though, Goodell is a rock star when it comes to helping his bosses bank astonishing, ever-increasing revenues.
While the NFL is fighting legal challenges from Gruden and Flores, and while the NFL universe is waiting to see whether there will be a lengthy suspension (or not) for a franchise quarterback, the Denver Broncos are poised to be sold for a record price that could top $4 billion.
Roughly four years ago, David Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers for an NFL-record $2.275 billion. Now, according to some industry experts, it’s likely that the Broncos will double that – coinciding with the long-term media deals and labor pact with the players union that stabilizes the NFL (again) at a time when the nation’s economy is threatening recession (again).
“I always tell new owners coming into the league, ‘Whatever you paid for that team, you’ll be happy,’ “ Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay told USA TODAY Sports. “No one has ever said, ‘I paid too much.’ If I buy the Denver Broncos for $6 billion, I’m not looking back. The value of the franchise will increase. The brand that the NFL has is enormous.”
“Is a house in Malibu really worth $120 million?” he said.
“But people do pay it,” Irsay added.
Time for a clip-and-save moment. A little more than eight years ago, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicted that the NFL was “10 years away from an implosion.”
As Cuban spouted back in 2014, “I’m just telling you, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always…turns on you.”
Well, that implosion has hardly happened. The NFL’s national media rights deals are worth $111.8 billion through 2032, excluding its popular “Sunday Ticket” package with DirecTV. The collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association runs through the 2030 season.
And there are still situations where NFL owners profit immensely from a version of “corporate welfare” – public dollars used to support the construction of new stadiums – with a fresh example being the Buffalo Bills garnering (fleecing?) $850 million in taxpayer money.
It’s striking to consider that the NFL’s most lucrative franchise, the Dallas Cowboys, had a valuation of $6.5 billion in 2021, according to Forbes. Jerry Jones bought the franchise in 1989 for $150 million and then got on with the business of showing the NFL how to do business in a different way.
Speaking of Jones, the Hall of Famer provided a lighthearted snapshot on Tuesday as he broke from a meeting and headed to a men’s room. In his path were about a dozen reporters and a couple of TV camera crews.
Jones stopped and seemingly pondered options. He looked at a staircase in front of him, glanced at the media pack to his left.
“I’d rather jump than go through that gauntlet,” he said.
What a kidder. Metaphorically, the league for which Jones is such a key power broker is hardly unhinged by any gauntlet. The NFL has solidly remained the nation’s most popular league despite threats to derail it from its perch that include a concussion crisis, domestic violence issues and polarization over social justice protests.
The current challenges, even if all combined, won’t be the impetus for an implosion.
“Sure, we have some issues, and they have to be addressed,” Irsay said. “But what the founders of this league established is still true: No. 1, the game is what you protect. It’s the sport that has grown the league.”
A healthy debate can certainly be had when assessing the quality of the sport, with, for instance, hyperactive roster turnover in a salary-cap era weighed against the polished quarterbacking in a passing era. There’s no debate, though, when it comes to the TV numbers and cash flow. With scoring and competitive balance measures in an ideal space, the product is clearly working for the masses.
The game, for the moment, is in such a groove that after the playoff overtime rules were tweaked in March, there weren’t any controversial playing-field issues that carried over to the latest meetings – which explained the mellow calmness this week on the face Rich McKay, the Atlanta Falcons CEO and chairman of the league’s competition committee.
Irsay, meanwhile, wasn’t sweating all the stuff that Goodell danced about. Irsay remembers the 1980s, a decade when the NFL had two work stoppages, including one that resulted in “replacement” games, a competitive threat and legal challenge from the USFL and the lawsuits from Al Davis that underscored moving his Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles.
It’s also worth noting that it was during the ‘80s when Jim’s father, Bob, moved the Colts to Indianapolis from Baltimore literally in the middle of the night.
“These are calm times, compared to then,” Irsay said. “Back then, it was really crazy times. There was so much litigation. That was the worst of times. The incredible thing about the league is it’s about the game. The game is great and we grew through that.”
Especially when considering the business of the bottom line.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amid mounting controversies, NFL's business still booms