Flexing NFL Thursday night games a bad idea that’s all about the money

Fans who like to travel to games have to be leery about buying tickets or making travel arrangements for games played in weeks 13 to 17 on Thursday nights.

During that five-week period, the NFL will be allowed to flex two games to Thursday nights. They will be streamed on Amazon. It is another example that greed is good in the NFL these days.

At the recent owners meeting, commissioner Roger Goodell needed 24 votes to pass the measure and he got exactly that number. He was two votes shy in the March meetings. To get it passed, the league agreed to notify teams 28 days in advance instead of 15 that a game may be flexed.

If no games are flexed to Thursday night this year, the league will try it again next year. If they are, Goodell will need 24 votes to pass it again next year.

It is interesting the “no” votes were the Raiders, Lions, Bengals, Steelers, Giants, Bears, Jets and Packers.

The Packers are a community-owned team and except for the Jets, the rest of the teams are family-owned and date their ownership at least back to 1963. And Giants co-owner John Mara was very vocal in his opposition. Those owners didn’t pay billions for the team the way many of the more recent owner have, so they may be more attuned to what is best for the game and the fans rather than how much revenue the games bring in.

Flexing Thursday night games shows how desperate the league is to improve the Prime ratings since they are getting a billion dollars a year for 11 years for the package.

Last year the ratings averaged only 9.6 million viewers on Thursday nights, a drop of over 40 percent from the previous year when the games weren’t streamed.

The streaming, though, may be more of a problem than the matchups. The technology has to improve because the picture sometimes freezes and it is a hassle to go back and forth between network program and streaming.

The league did seem to make an effort to give Prime better late season games this year. The Cowboys-Seahawks and Steelers-Patriots in weeks 13-14 don’t figure to be flexed. The final three are Chargers-Raiders, Saints-Rams and Jets-Browns. It remains to be seen if those are attractive matches late in the season.

Meanwhile, the NFL may find out that streaming games simply isn’t ready for prime time and that it has to accept fewer viewers in exchange for the big payday..

After Peacock deal, does the NFL’s greed know any bounds?

In its first century, leaders like Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle stressed building its audience.

That is now so old fashioned. In today’s NFL, they will trade fewer viewers for more money from streaming.

First, they took a billion dollars a year from Amazon to show Thursday night games for 11 years. Even though Prime has 220 million subscribers, the games only averaged 9.58 million fans.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the league has announced it sold the rights to the Saturday night wildcard game to Peacock for about $110 million, according to the Wall Street Journal.

They ignored the fact Peacock only has about 20 million subscribers. Last year’s Saturday night playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars drew 20 million viewers and that was a 20 percent drop from 2021 because neither team has a big fan base. The Chargers are in a big market, but Los Angeles has yet to show much interest in them since they moved from San Diego.

The Peacock game won’t get anywhere near 20 million viewers, but the NFL doesn’t seem to care because it pockets the money. Meanwhile, Peacock was started in 2020 and is expected to lose $3 billion this year.

To watch the game, fans have to pay $4.99 fee for the month and put up with all the problems of watching a streaming game, including the glitches in the picture and difficulty of trying to sign in. The only fans who can watch the game on network TV will be the ones in the two markets of the teams playing in the games.

And then there is the question of where the NFL is going with this. How many games will be streamed in the future? Will the Super Bowl one day be streamed or put on Pay Per View?

Will the NFL continue to have the Midas touch? Everything it touches turns into money, but at what cost?

In the universe of hundreds of channels it is difficult for them to draw the audiences it once did because viewers have more options. The NFL brags the Super Bowl drew a record audience, but the highest-rated game in terms of percentage of viewers was Super Bowl XVI between the 49ers and Bengals because cable was just getting started.

The NFL TV ratings have yet to return to 2015 levels and four of the six wild card games had a drop in audience from 2021.

But the NFL is no longer trying to grow its audience. Its business model is now trading fewer viewers for more money from streaming.

Jackson gets the big money — and a big target on his back

There was a time back in the day when NFL player salaries were not a big issue.

Pro football wasn’t a billion-dollar business even in the 1970s and players didn’t have agents, didn’t know what other players made and even the teams didn’t know what other teams paid. As late as the 1970s some undrafted rookies didn’t make $20,000 a year.

Finally in that decade, the NFLPA negotiated a deal with the owners for them to provide the first salary surveys for the players. Although no names were mentioned, the list included the high and low salary for each position each year with a median and average salary.

The startling figure was that O.J. Simpson was making $733,000 a year at a time when the second highest paid player, Archie Manning, was making in the $400,000 range.

Considering the fact that what O.J. made was close to double what the second highest paid player made, it may be the best contract ever. One owner told me that when reports came out of Buffalo, that O.J. got $2.1 million over three years, he thought the figures were hyped and not true.

The salary survey showed the figures were accurate.

Meanwhile, everything has changed now. NFL salaries are virtually a matter of public record. Almost all players have agents and they know the numbers for all the other players.

That is why it was quite surprising that Lamar Jackson decided not to hire an agent and negotiated with the Ravens himself.

The negotiations dragged for over a year without him getting a new deal. Jackson got a lot of flak for not having an agent. It didn’t help his cause that he was injured the last two years, doesn’t have a good playoff record and reports are that he wanted a fully guaranteed deal like the $230 million deal that Deshaun Watson got from Cleveland.

The owners were adamant to not let the Watson fully guaranteed deal set a precedent. It may be collusion but the NFL tends to get away with holding the line.

In the end, Jackson didn’t get a fully guaranteed deal, but he got so much money — $260 million for five years and $185 million guaranteed — that he couldn’t turn it down. At $52 million average a year, it is the best deal ever.

Granted, it will be topped soon, but Jackson got the last laugh. He got a great deal and won’t pay agent fees of several million dollars.. It could be argued that an agent might have gotten the deal earlier, but Jackson now has generational wealth.

Now the question is whether Jackson can take the Ravens deep into the playoffs or even to the Super Bowl. And since the entire league know the deal he got, it will be a target for agents representing star quarterbacks in the pipeline.

But with big money comes big expectations. We’ll see if he can live up to them.

New book on the mixing of sports and politics is a fun read

There is no shortage of books written about American presidents.

But in his new book, “Power Players: Sports, Politics and the American Presidency (Hachette Book Group), Chris Cillizza adds a new twist to the subject of presidents by examining the interest that every president since Eisenhower has had in sports.

The theme of the book is that their interest in sports isn’t surprising because like it is in politics, winning is everything in sports.

And even if they aren’t that into participating in sports, they know how to use the interest of others in sports to gain what they wanted.

For example, Lyndon Johnson had no interest in baseball but he learned that Richard Russell, then a powerful senator from Georgia back when the Solid South was Democratic.

So Johnson started attending games with Russell, who was a loner and didn’t have anybody to go with. He attended few games before Johnson started going with him. And Russell started viewing him as sort of a surrogate son and helped him pass the 1957 Civil Rights bill that was so critical to Johnson’s reputation. That helped him get on the ticket in 1960.

A friend said Johnson could care less about sports, entertainment and movies. But he used baseball to his advantage.

Still some of the presidents cared a lot about sports.

Eisenhower, for example, was such a serious golfer that he went to Augusta 45 times, 29 as president. They also built him a three story seven bedroom cottage near the 10th tee at Augusta.

He also played football at West Point before he suffered a knee injury and turned to poker and was very good at it. He later played a lot of bridge. The author then goes all through the presidents after Eisenhower and chronicles their athletic exploits or lack thereof.

The best athlete was probably Gerald Ford, who played center at the University of Michigan and was offered a contract by the Green Bay Packers. Still Ford had some spills and Chevy Chase exaggerated them on Saturday Night Live.

It wasn’t generally known what a good athlete he was. He was even a good skier. 

Cillizza writes, “The dirty little secret about Gerald Ford then was that he as a very good athlete. Which shouldn’t surprise exactly no one – and yet it does.” Ford kind of downplayed his athletic ability because athletes sometimes aren’t considered the sharpest knives in the drawer.

I wasn’t surprised he was a good athlete because I grew up in Grand Rapids and knew his background. My dad was in his high school class and played in the band. When Ford became president, I was working at UPI in New York and told our columnist before he went to interview Ford and the columnist mentioned my dad.

Ford said, “Oh, you mean Phil’s son.” Ford never forgot his roots. 

At least two presidents managed to inflate their athletic accomplishments.

In campaign stops at Ohio University in 2008 and 2010, Joe Biden said his Delaware team beat the Ohio University Bobcats in 1963. It turns out Delaware did win but Biden wasn’t on the team. The author says Biden “fibbed.”

And then there was Donald Trump. Not surprising that he pretended to be a better baseball player than he was in high school. Slate magazine did a deep dive into Hudson Valley papers and found nine box scores in which he had four hits in 29 at-bats.

By contrast, George H.W. Bush was good enough to be a first baseman at Yale and the book includes a picture of him meeting Babe Ruth shortly before he died.

The book is a good read filled with anecdotes like this. Cillizza said the idea for the book has been rattling around in his brain for the better part of five years and it turned out to be a good idea.

Entertaining new book goes to the heart of sports and numbers

Do you like to debate who are the best of the sports legends? Do you like knowing their best numbers?

Mike Greenberg and Paul “Hembo” Hembek have just the book for you – “Got Your Number – The Greatest Sports Legends and the Numbers they Own.” It is just out and published by Hyperion Avenue.

They go from 0 to 100, and many of the numbers are uniform numbers. Like Derek Jeter at 2, Babe Ruth at 3 and Joe DiMaggio at 5.

Of course, some athletes don’t have numbers so Arnold Palmer is 62 for his number of tour wins. And then there is Secretariat who is 31 for the number of lengths he won the Belmont by in his Triple crown year. And 88 is for John Wooden’s longest winning streak at UCLA.

Each number gets two or three pages and tends to be crammed with interesting anecdotes and numbers.

For example, they note that Willie Mays, number 24, led the league in homers and steals four times each. No player has ever done that and probably never will again. He also won 12 Golden Gloves in a row and recorded 7,112 putouts, a record they say will never be broken. And then, of course, there was the catch of Vic Wertz drive in the World Series.

And the authors expect debate about their selections. Greenberg says he will defend every word he wrote but will listen to other sides.

OK, I will start with fact he left out both Lou Gehrig and Sandy Koufax. I was so surprised at their omissions that I went back through the book to make sure I hadn’t overlooked them. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan got 3 numbers – 23, 63 and 93. Isn’t one enough? It’s not like he was Bill Russell. And Dennis Rodman was included. Huh?

And he includes Dan Marino, who was routed in his only Super Bowl appearances and omits Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bobby Layne, Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw, who all won multiple titles.

And he also left out some good anecdotes.

Of Walter Payton, he said he was an Ironman who simply did not miss games. Well, he missed one against the Pittsburgh Steelers in his rookie year in 1975 when he had a minor injury and the coaches figured there was no point in letting the Steel Curtain batter him. After that game, Don Pierson, the esteemed football writer who covered the Bears and the NFL for decades, said to Payton, “Jim Brown never did that.” Payton said, “Did what?” Pierson told him Brown never missed a game. Payton never missed another one even when he was hurt. I covered a game in 1983 in Baltimore when Payton was hurt and carried only three times for four yards. But he didn’t sit out. That was Payton.

And any discussion of Joe DiMaggio should include the iconic piece by Gay Talese in 1966 that was called the Silent Season of a Hero.

Talese talks about how Marilyn Monroe came back from a USO tour in Korea and said, “Joe, Joe, you never heard such cheering.” Joe’s memorable answer was “Yes I have.” That was the essence of DiMaggio. Didn’t need four words if three were enough. And an example of the cheering he heard during his celebrated career.

And he gave props to the Steeler dynasty of the 1970s, using 58 and 59 for the two HOF linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. Joe Greene got his own number later. He noted it was the only dynasty defined by its defense. He points out they played 18 playoff games between1972 and 1979 and didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher. And they stopped HOFers Larry Csonka, Tony Dorsett, O.J. Simpson and Earl Campbell twice. They also didn’t allow a 300-yard passer although there weren’t many 300 passing games in those days. Still, the authors didn’t mention that after the NFL banned the bump and run after five yards in 1978, a rule aimed at Mel Blount and the rest of the defense, they won their last two Super Bowls on offense, scoring over 30 points to beat the Cowboys and Rams.  The defense was so good they changed the rules to neutralize and then the offense took over.

Well, I could go on and on, but this book is definitely a good read. You can form your own opinions if you read it.

The debates help to make sports so interesting and this book will spark a lot of debate.