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Q&A: NFL executive Eric Grubman

Vice president of business operations for the NFL offers thoughts on a variety of topics, including Los Angeles and Europe.

January 29, 2013|By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS — — If Commissioner Roger Goodell is the quarterback at NFL headquarters, Eric Grubman is more like the running back, negotiating around, over and through obstacles while always trying to advance the ball.

Grubman, the NFL's executive vice president of business operations, is the league's chief deal maker, a longtime Goldman Sachs investment banker who plays a crucial role in major transactions such as the sale of a team, the construction of a stadium, or the various relationships with league partners.

Grubman recently spoke to The Times on a variety of topics, among them the challenge of attracting fans to live events (as opposed to watching on TV), the NFL-in-Los Angeles soap opera, and the prospects of continuing to build a fan base overseas.

It's more comfortable to watch games at home than in an NFL stadium. What's the pitch for paying all that money to watch the game live?

You can't influence the game from your couch. But if you've never experienced that, you don't know what you're missing. This is the first generation really that I would argue has a lot of opportunities to see it in such a way that they don't know what they're missing.

If you want to be in the game, there's no place to be but in the stadium. If you want an adrenaline rush, you can only get that at the stadium. If you want to know what it feels like to be around 50,000 people, you can only get that at the stadium. But if what you want to see is the 15th angle on the replay, if that's what you want, it's better at home.

The NFL seems to be investigating the possibility of putting a team overseas. But NFL Europe ultimately failed. Isn't that a red flag?

NFL Europe demonstrated the people love American-style football, and that they love the experience. … What they didn't like was something other than the ultimate game. And what we didn't have, which justified us taking it to the next level, is we didn't have adequate television coverage. So we decided to reboot and put the real game in a place where we could get adequate television and other media coverage and build from there.

What about the NFL in Los Angeles? Has that returned to the back burner?

We solved a couple of the key issues that we thought were major impediments, but some others have cropped up. We're still of a mindset to return to Los Angeles, if we can do it in a way that makes us sure that we're going to have great success.

Where do you project the growth of the league to be in five years? Is it still on an upward trajectory?

Yes, we're still on an upward trajectory.

In terms of our growth opportunity, everybody keeps saying that we're a mature business because we have a number of franchises, we're fully distributed and we're on network television, our ratings are as high as they can be, etc. But if you go back the past 10 or 15 years, we've been able to say that for 15 years.

What new ideas are in the pipeline for the NFL?

I could tell you that there are a number of good ideas that could have been acted on a few years ago that we just don't act on because we're not sure they're ready, or we're not sure it's going to work, or we think it might harm a partner.

Mobile. NFL Everywhere is beginning to become a reality. If you subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV and authenticate, you can take that with you, so to speak. Well, start thinking about that with other pieces of our content and more methods of authentication, and it's going to expand.

Next-generation stats. People love stats. Right now it's numbers in a column, put them in a spreadsheet, run them through a program. What if it's real time with spatial orientation because you're sensing where the players are, how they're running, how they're lining up in relation to each other, how fast they're going, how high they're jumping, all in real time in relation to the ball. Now you've got stats in three dimensions, because you have left, right, up, down, and time.

I don't know exactly what to do with that, but I know that people will figure it out.

NFL fans in Europe can watch streaming online video of live games and NFL Network by subscribing to Game Pass. What's the future of that?

We've just been using that to satisfy the rabid fan internationally. What if we decide to make it the rabbit ears of the 21st century? Rabbit ears were free television — you didn't get such a great picture, but you got the game.

What if we decided to use Game Pass in that way in the rest of the world? And instead of saying, 'What's the price at which people turn away?' What if we said, 'Why don't we get to a million fans? Why not 10 million fans?' That's a big opportunity. I don't have any idea what it's worth.

What does it mean to have 1 million, 5 million, 10 million more fans overseas? Then you start to overlay whether you have a franchise overseas, or two franchises overseas, or do you play multiple games in multiple cities overseas?

And Game Pass is not on anyone's radar outside the NFL.

Are you confident the league could put a team in Europe and succeed there?

Not yet. But I'm pretty optimistic that we're on the road to finding out. Putting in place the building blocks to test that case takes awhile. And we've been passing the test.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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