Apparently there’s a big football game coming up this weekend, which makes this a good time for a post about the future of football. This post isn’t hard sf, but there is some science fiction content. Not simply because it’s a prediction about the future beyond the end of the next sports season or the next election cycle, but primarily because it’s based on cliodynamics, theories of historical processes. For Asimov fans, think of it as baby steps toward psychohistory as depicted in the Foundation series.
The NFL has been in a Golden Age since about 1985, the year the original incarnation of the USFL collapsed. In 1984, NFL team revenues ranged from about $23.2 million to $29.4 million. We’ll round off at $26.3 million per team. In 2016, total league revenues were about $14 billion, for an average of $437.5 million per team. (The Cowboys nearly doubled that, $840 million, and only the Patriots, Redskins, Giants, and 49ers exceeded the average). Call it four doubling times in 32 years, apply rule of 72, and you have an average per team revenue growth of 9% per year.
As Herbert Stein famously quipped, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” Even if the NFL had smooth sailing for the next three+ decades, we can probably rule out average team revenue of $7 billion for the 2050 season.
And the sailing won’t be smooth. Consider the squalls already blowing in the NFL’s face:
- The concussion problem. Lawsuits from ex-players; a decline in youth football participation as parents keep their sons out of football, leading to less interest in football and a weaker talent pool, reducing the appeal of the NFL’s product; a mounting distaste for the public for such a violent sport.
- Calibrating the level of violence to please owners and casual fans (who want their stars to be protected from blindside hits) while keeping hardcore fans (who want the game to remain the province of tough guys).
- Pricing out Joe Sixpack. What was the minimum in the 2018 NFL season for a family of four to park, sit in the upper deck, and buy four hot dogs, three sodas, and a beer for Dad? $500? Especially when the only thing more boring than sitting through an NFL commercial break while watching TV is sitting through the same commercial break in the stadium.
- The anthem protests of 2017 have faded from the public eye, but watch for more activism to pop up, especially if political forces put a tailwind behind them. And if you think Commissioner Goodell learned his lesson and will keep politics off the field, you think he’s far more principled than I do.
- Patriots fatigue. What’s next for Tom Brady? Stem cell injections? Cyborg implants? Breaking George Blanda’s record as oldest NFL player ever? The Patriots playing in fifteen Super Bowls between 2001 and 2030? Yawn.
From all this, it’s a given that per-team NFL revenue growth will slow, and may soon decline.
Once revenue shrinks, we’re into a decline-of-Rome dynamic. The elites faced with dividing a shrinking pie will do what they have always done throughout history: scheme against one another to each carve off a bigger slice at the expense of the others. This tendency is compounded when the elites presiding over the Golden Age, who worked together to make that Golden Age happen, die off and their heirs expect the easy money will keep rolling in. When you’re a spoiled child, it’s so much easier to blame your peers than to reconfigure your system for a new, more austere, era. (FYI, among owners of richer NFL teams, Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft are both over 75).
Given this tendency, how will it manifest?
The obvious target is revenue sharing. Almost all of the NFL teams share merchandise revenues and split gate proceeds. The only exception? The Cowboys. The $300 million more in revenues than any other team Cowboys. (Jerry Jones negotiated an opt-out for merchandise and ticket sales sharing and so far is the only owner to opt out). When other envious owners realize the best way to enrich themselves is to follow the Cowboys’ lead, they will. Result: richer teams will be better able to sign great free agents, will gain fans, and will get richer; poorer teams will be less able to compete, will lose fans, and will get poorer. With more teams out of championship contention, fewer fans will follow the NFL, and the revenue decline will accelerate. This leads to a decline in the salary cap, which increases labor unrest because players are just as accustomed as the owners to increasing revenues. Another strike, maybe a lockout.
But there’s more. Currently, all NFL teams share TV revenue. But for the prosperous teams to keep their revenue increasing, TV revenue sharing will have to go away.
Here’s the crisis point: a group of 6-8 prosperous-team owners gives the NFL an ultimatum. Reconfigure TV revenue in their favor, or they walk and form a new pro league.
If the NFL caves, then 16-24 teams become perennial losers. Their fan bases implode; they can’t hire any good free agents; they become near-automatic Ws for the elite 8. The decline accelerates. Eventually, teams go out of business, and you’ll have a league where the elite 8 dominate. Maybe it’s still called the NFL, but with only 12 teams arranged in geographic conferences to minimize travel expenses, with games only streamed, not broadcast, and uniforms gaudy with advertising like NASCAR drivers’ suits.
If the NFL rejects the ultimatum, the teams bolt. No doubt the divorce will be messy–the player’s association might try negotiating the best possible deal, or maybe try to start a third, player-owned pro league. But the teams would only issue the ultimatum if they believed they would come out ahead.
So far, I’m confident in my predictions. Whether the new league is called the USFL or something else, whether it starts play in 2025, whether the Cowboys are its first champions, is just clickbait. Check back with me in fall ‘25 and we’ll see how close this prediction is to reality.