The Super Bowl is watched by more Americans than any other televised event. In 2014, 112.2 million viewers watched the Super Bowl. To put that in perspective, only 52 million viewers watched game 7 of this past year’s World Series, the second highest viewership in MLB history, and only 31.7 million viewers watched President Obama’s recent State of the Union address.
Record viewership leads to profitable media contracts for the NFL, lulling owners and players into believing their brand is secure. Boxing and baseball previously ignored threats to their brands and they no longer command the market share they once did.
Football is not played internationally and fewer young people are playing football in the United States, limiting growth potential. Add a series of troublesome scandals, and the NFL’s future is uncertain.
The NFL and Super Bowl were born of cooperative effort on the part of the NFL and their competitor, the American Football League (AFL). Today, the future of the NFL depends on similar cooperation on the part of the ever-warring owners and players.
In March of 1959, after being rebuffed in his effort to secure an NFL franchise, Texas millionaire Lamar Hunt met with fellow oilman Bud Adams to discuss creating a football league to rival the senior NFL. Six other owners joined Hunt and Adams and the AFL suited up for its first season in 1960.
Aided by the power of "black gold,” the AFL quickly made its presence known to the long-established NFL: Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon of LSU was signed first in the overall 1960 draft by Adams' Houston Oilers. In 1965, AFL money talked again as entertainment mogul and New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin signed the charismatic Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback, Joe Namath, to a jaw-dropping $427,000 three-year contract.
The conservative NFL initially hoped the upstart AFL would perish. After six years of intense financial competition, however, the NFL relented and a merger between the two leagues was announced on June 8, 1966 and finalized in 1970.
The first cooperative steps were a series of exhibition games followed by a championship game. The AFL-NFL World Championship Game, as it was then known, initially yielded back-to-back victories by head coach Vince Lombardi's vaunted Green Bay Packers, thrilling NFL stalwarts. Namath promised an underdog victory for the AFL in the third championship game and backed up his brash prediction as the Jets stifled the hapless Colts, 16-7.
Fittingly, Hunt's Dallas Texans, which had relocated to Kansas City, put the exclamation point to the equality of the contentious leagues. Chiefs' head coach Hank Stram orchestrated a defensive scheme that contained the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings' top-rated NFL offense, resulting in a 23-7 shellacking in championship game IV.
The "AFL-NFL World Championship Game" received a new name: "Super Bowl," which is attributed to Lamar Hunt, based on his witnessing his children playing with a Super Ball, a toy that saw faddish popularity during the mid-1960s. In an act of cooperation among equals, "America’s sport" was born in the form of a newer and stronger NFL. New markets opened, owners enjoyed rising profits and players’ salaries increased.
Today, the A-type personalities on both sides of the NFL’s collective bargaining table must come together to avoid serious threats to their future. Issues involving abuse of women and children, injuries to players and “ ‘bounty,’ ‘deflate’ and ‘spy’ gate” cheating scandals threaten the NFL’s brand.
The NFL is poised to lead but can only do so through a cooperative effort. Owners and players must strengthen the “No More” campaign, making it clear that they are committed to ending abuse, not merely avoiding scandal. A sustained campaign and supportive programming should capture the theme that real men (and football players are real men) do not abuse women or children.
The NFL and the NFLPA battle acrimoniously regarding health and safety issues. They agreed to allocate $100 million to deal with such issues, but they cannot even agree as to how such funds should be spent.
The players and owners must do better. They should create a well-funded player safety and worker’s compensation program designed to avoid and deal with football-related injuries. Congress should support such a collective effort to help ensure that dollars are spent on player health and safety, not litigation and lawyers.
Players and owners fight over authority regarding issues related to cheating, rather than dealing collectively to save their brand. They must unitedly demonstrate no tolerance for cheating of any kind and renew children’s faith that “cheaters never prosper.”
With programs and clear messages opposing abuse and cheating and a united commitment to health and safety, a new and cooperative NFL can reclaim its teetering brand.
Victor Miller is a freelance nostalgia writer, and Rodney K. Smith is director of the sports law and business program at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.