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NFL future: Feeling a bit woozy

Sam Farmer / ON THE NFL

The league remains solid, but concussions and safety could lead to big changes.

January 26, 2013|By Sam Farmer

The NFL and NFLPA might have achieved a breakthrough this month on HGH testing, with both sides saying they would be amenable to the type of testing done in Major League Baseball. But the league and the union have been close to such an agreement in the past before digging in, firing salvos at each other, and failing to put a testing plan in place.

The suspicion is that both sides are reticent to begin testing because of the possibility of widespread HGH use in the league and the fallout that could bring.

More hurdles clutter the NFL's path. There's the public-relations headache over Goodell's suspensions of four New Orleans Saints for their roles in the Bountygate scandal, suspensions that were later vacated by arbitrator (and former NFL commissioner) Paul Tagliabue. There was the embarrassment of replacement officials who faltered in place of the locked-out regulars.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles has no team, and the league has no plan for a return to the nation's second-largest market. There are stadium proposals in Southern California, but the league has yet to act on them. In cities that have teams, the challenge of attracting fans to games only grows as it becomes increasingly easy, comfortable, and inexpensive to watch on TVs, computers, and even mobile devices. What's more, the once-bulletproof TV numbers have dipped this season, falling off 5% from a year ago.

Making mountains of money is not a problem for the NFL. But there's no guarantee the league will continue its upward trajectory. Just as a quarterback is taught to keep his head "on a swivel," the NFL too has to constantly address problems and scan the landscape for new and better business opportunities.

The NFL's Eric Grubman, a former Goldman Sachs Group investment banker, spends significant time focused on getting fans to come to games, as opposed to watching them from home, where they don't pay for tickets or parking, buy food and drinks at stadium prices, or wait in line for the bathroom.

"People are tired of economic pressure," said Grubman, the league's executive vice president of business operations. "So when they feel it at the gas station, and they feel it with their mortgage payment, and they feel it everywhere else, it's just natural that they question it more on the ticket.

"Our job is to make sure there's a ticket price for every fan, and to make sure that every year we give more excitement and more value to that same ticket. That becomes a bigger challenge when people don't feel good from an economic and financial perspective."

The New York Jets charged an NFL-high average of $117.94 per ticket this season, and the next four most expensive teams — New England, the New York Giants, Chicago and Dallas — all charged an average of more than $110 per ticket.

"We've gotten to a point where it really hurts to go to a football game," MacCambridge said. "I've been to a couple stadiums where, and think about this, this is your first contact with a team. You're coming there because you love the team, you want to root for the team, and your first contact with the team is: parking $30. You're not even in the stadium yet, and you're already out 30 bucks.

"The league does not want to be in a situation where the only teams that sell out are the teams with winning records. Then you don't have a healthy product."

The 49ers' York is building a new stadium in Santa Clara that has all the technological perks befitting a venue in the heart of the Silicon Valley. He wants fans who attend games at the new stadium to have every comfort they now have at their favorite coffee store, and more.

By his thinking, having full stadiums is important not only for the revenues they generate but for the perception of the games to the people watching at home.

"A restaurant isn't as good if there's only four people in there," York said. "When a restaurant is hustling and bustling, it just feels better, the food tastes better because you see everybody else enjoying it. That's the same thing for any live event. Great bands, if you don't have a great crowd, then the band isn't quite as good.

"The same thing goes for the game. If you don't have a great crowd and people who are interacting with the game, it's just not the same feel."

The next generation of NFL stadiums could be markedly different than the ones we now know, Grubman said. He envisions smaller and more intimate venues, possibly more like basketball arenas, with standing-room-only clubs at the corners.

"What if a new stadium we built wasn't 70,000, but it was 40,000 seats with 20,000 standing room?" he said. "But the standing room was in a bar-type environment with three sides of screens, and one side where you see the field. Completely connected. And in those three sides of screens, you not only got every piece of NFL content, including replays, Red Zone [Channel], and analysis, but you got every other piece of news and sports content that you would like to have if you were at home.

"Now you have the game, the bar and social setting, and you have the content. What's that ticket worth? What's that environment feel like to a young person? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in that seat, or do you want to be in that pavilion?"

Whether it's player safety, business opportunities, or adjustments to the game itself, Grubman said, the key for the NFL is to be vigilant and bold in its thinking.

"When you're watched and followed by 200 million people," he said, "little things can become big things, and when you mishandle those little things, they become giant."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesFarmer

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