Ravens join NFL that crosses goal line of profits, popularity League reigns supreme as marketing machine

August 31, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Its championship game is watched by more people than live in Africa. Americans invariably name it as their favorite sport. And if you can find a franchise to buy, it will cost you twice what the Pentagon pays for the latest stealth fighter jet.

The National Football League that returns to Baltimore tomorrow is the undisputed champion of spectator sports. By almost any measurement, from TV ratings to T-shirt sales, it reigns supreme.

Purists will note that baseball, with many more games per season, sells three times as many tickets. Soccer aficionados can claim more fans worldwide, but no single soccer league enjoys the proceeds. And pragmatists will point out, correctly, that the NFL could be headed down a path of self-destruction if current trends worsen.

But when the Baltimore Ravens take the field at Memorial Stadium, they will become a part of a high-octane, TV-fueled marketing machine that is the envy of sports leagues around the world.


When pollsters ask Americans to name their favorite spectator sport, the NFL is so dominant that, if it were a presidential race, baseball, hockey and basketball would barely make it through the primaries.

On any given Sunday, Anheuser-Busch Inc., the world's largest brewer, can count on reaching one of every 10 young American men -- its primary customers -- through ads on NFL broadcasts. No other sport comes even close.

Financial World magazine, in its annual calculation of the finances of sports teams, estimates that the 30 NFL franchises ++ are collectively worth $5.2 billion, fully 50 percent more than the second most valuable league, the NBA's 27 teams. An NFL team holds the record sale price: $192 million for the pitiful Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with relocation penalties.

When the ESPN Chilton Sports Poll last July asked 1,500 Americans to name their favorite spectator sport, 23 percent said "NFL." That's almost twice the response No. 2, baseball, got. It's been that way for years.

"The NFL, across the board, is everyone's favorite sport. They always have the most fans," said Jenna Tourdot, assistant marketing director for the poll, which is owned by the ESPN cable network.

Other polls show the same thing. When asked to name their favorite athletes, respondents picked six NFL players out of the top 12, twice as many as the second-biggest vote getter, the NBA. The Chicago Bulls currently top the rankings of favorite teams, but most of the other top slots go to football franchises.

Not as big overseas

Worldwide, about the only thing that rivals the NFL as a spectacle is the World Cup of soccer, a tournament played every four years. An estimated 2 billion people saw at least part of the 1994 title game, according to U.S. Soccer.

But soccer is a game, not a league. The World Cup is organized by the Federation Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA, but the contending teams come from scores of individual leagues around the world. None rival the NFL for size or profit.

Likewise, basketball and the NBA are well ahead of the NFL in international appeal. Overseas retail sales of NBA merchandise was $400 million last year, and a thriving network of leagues are boosting the sport's popularity abroad.

"Globally the NBA is clearly the leader. They have made tremendous inroads in Europe and even Asia," said Susan Hofacre, head of the sports administration program at Pittsburgh's Robert Morris College.

Baseball as a sport also has done better overseas than American-style football, which is almost exclusively played here. Japan has a thriving baseball league, and the sport is popular throughout the Pacific Rim and in Latin America.

But in the biggest sports market of all, the United States, football is king.

"They've got a tremendous product and over the years it's been well-executed," said Paul Much, senior managing director of Houlihan, Lokey Howard & Zukin, a Chicago-based consultant to a number of sports teams.

Much attributes the success to a cooperative league structure that has maintained a reasonable balance between teams in terms of both wins and losses, and profits and losses.

Specifically, NFL teams generously share with each other their take from tickets, TV and merchandise sales. In all, 90 percent of their collective revenues are pooled and shared. The $1 billion a year the networks pay to broadcast the games, for example, will be cut up into $40 million slices for each non-expansion team this year, roughly covering the player payroll.

"In the past, whatever was good for the league was good for the teams," Much said.

Clouds on the horizon

That all-for-one and one-for-all mind-set is under attack. Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, has struck his own sponsorship deals in defiance of league rules, suggested merchandise sales should no longer be shared equally, and sued his fellow franchise owners for trying to enforce league-wide business arrangements.

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