January 31, 2014 11:31 am

The Super Bowl: school of hard knocks

In dollars earned and cultural ubiquity, the NFL has no rival

Icy weather and growling locals make New York City the perfect spot for the Super Bowl. The game is supposed to be rough and tough, and America’s richest sports league deserves to hold its championship in its financial capital (ignore the little detail that the game itself will be contested across the Hudson River, in a New Jersey swamp). So enjoy your moment, National Football League. After the confetti settles on the ground, the game’s violence and the league’s mixed signals towards mitigating it will move back into focus.

In dollars earned and cultural ubiquity, the NFL has no rival. The 32 team league takes $10bn in revenue, well ahead of the American basketball and baseball leagues. Shrewd deals with the player’s union have kept a tight lid on salaries. Most of the teams are estimated to be worth more than $1bn.

Football’s commercial lead over the other sports comes down to television. The once-a-week games on Sunday during the cold months invite appointment viewing (and don’t underestimate the gambling and fantasy sports contribution). Marketers increasingly favour live broadcasts where viewers pay attention to advertising. The NFL Sunday night broadcast averages an audience of 22m and is routinely the top rated show in America.

While $10bn in revenue is nice, the NFL aspires to get to $25bn by 2027. Colonialism has always come in handy for empire builders. London will host three NFL games during the 2014 season. A permanent team there very well could be coming.

This season, the other financial figure bandied about, however, is the $765m the league owes following a settlement to former players who are suffering from brain trauma. That sounds like a big number, but a trial judgment could have run into the several billions (a judge now wonders if the settlement is adequate).

Violence is a pillar of the game’s appeal. But out of pragmatism and concern, the NFL has instituted new rules to limit certain crushing hits and improve treatment of head injuries. Yet those moves look disingenuous when the league is considering adding more games to the schedule. To boost TV revenue, a midweek game already exists that cuts into player recovery time.

The NFL’s spectacular wealth and overwhelming presence shows that it has already won. Putting even more points on the scoreboard is unseemly.

Email the Lex team in confidence at lex@ft.com

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