If you’re an NFL fan, chances are you have heard the name Mark Leibovich a lot this offseason. He is the author of the new book Big Game, in which some of the most powerful men in the league talk about its success, future plans, and petty feuds.
Leibovich has covered politics for the New York Times since 2006. He wrote a very similar book about Washington’s power players in 2013 called This Town. He originally wanted to call that book The Way it Works in Suck Up City. It should be obvious that no one comes off looking good.
So how did Mark Leibovich get owners in the image-obsessed NFL to open up to him? Well, the answer could rest in something I once heard SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey say. “Part of my job is to make people comfortable. A reporter’s job is to make people we want to talk to feel comfortable enough to open up to us.”
It could also be as simple as Bryan Curtis’s description of NFL owners in an interview with Leibovich that appeared at The Ringer. They are attracted to power, and politics is power, so in a way, having Leibovich interested in their world validates their feeling that the NFL and its owners are some of the most powerful people in America.
I spoke with Leibovich last week. There is a lot of salacious stuff in the book, and Leibovich holds none of it back, but this is a sports media website. If you want to read that, buy Big Game. I had three things I wanted to ask Leibovich about the NFL’s relationship with its media partners.
1. DOES THE NFL HAVE A PLAN OR EVEN A VISION OF WHAT ITS MEDIA FUTURE IS?
“Yeah, make as much money as possible in the current or next broadcast contract,” Leibovich says. I laugh. He doesn’t. “I mean, I’m serious.”
Leibovich says that he never got a sense that the NFL was any good at thinking and planning for the long term. He says that it starts with the owners, who he describes as “just overwhelmingly old,” but it doesn’t stop there.
“You have no sense that that Roger Goodell even thinks that much about it because he too has very short term goals, and that’s to please the owners who themselves just want, you know, want bigger revenues every year.”
He does heap some praise on NFL Network CEO and Vice President of Media for the league Brian Rolapp. Leibovich describes him as one of the few people in the NFL league office that “seems to get Silicon Valley, seems to get technology, seems to get social media.” He also gives Rolapp credit for forging relationships with Amazon and Twitter.
Given the League’s struggles in adapting to an ever-changing media landscape, I asked Mark if Brian Rolapp had a role similar to the one that Mark Cuban took on for himself when he first became a member of the NBA ownership fraternity. Does Brian Rolapp see modernizing the NFL’s media presence and broadcasting relationships as his primary responsibility?
“Well, yeah, I don’t think Rolapp has that power necessarily over the owners,” Leibovich answers. “So I mean, I think what the NFL desperately needs is either a Mark Cuban, or even better, like a half a dozen Mark Cubans or someone who will break glass and someone who gets the internet. They need someone who is younger, who just is driven by more than just a parochial interest of how his team does and how much money he makes.” Leibovich went on to say that the new owner of the Carolina Panthers, David Tepper, seems capable of filling that role.
I asked him if outside entities have tried to steer the NFL in any direction at all? After all, now that DirecTV is owned by AT&T and AT&T is in the process of acquiring platforms that will allow it to be the first option for both the cord cutters and the corded, has that company used its control of the Sunday Ticket package to try and open the door to being a partner and guiding hand for the NFL?
“I’m sure they have. I mean, I not privy to any of these conversations. They’re a huge stakeholder. I’m sure the NFL has to listen to them…I’d be shocked if they didn’t.”
2. WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE LEAGUE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH ESPN?
The first time I ever realized that the NFL has seriously butt heads with ESPN on occasion was when I read James Andrew Miller’s Those Guys Have All the Fun. In that book, Miller makes it clear that there were people at ESPN that believed the NFL made their network pay a higher price for the Monday Night Football package, one that doesn’t include a Super Bowl, because of the way the journalistic side of ESPN covered the lasting effects of player head injuries.
I asked Leibovich if Roger Goodell or anyone else at the NFL specifically spoke with any animosity or frustration when it came to talking about ESPN.
“Um, you know, it’s funny. I haven’t heard them talk about ESPN per se…Actually that’s not true. I’ve heard definitely heard the Patriots talk about ESPN,” he said. That makes sense. “Tom Brady’s not guilty” has been the rallying cry of the Patriots’ fanbase since about 2015.
Leibovich did say that, while he had never heard owners openly talk about what they do and don’t want ESPN to cover, “it wouldn’t shock me if when ESPN was negotiating with the league the league said ‘Hey, by the way, remember we’re partners right?’. And that obviously carries all kinds of you know, whether it’s bullying or a strong hint, I mean, it’s definitely a message being sent.”
Telling ESPN what they want covered might not happen, but when I asked Leibovich about ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro’s comments about wanting to repair the network’s relationship with the NFL, he said it isn’t hard to believe that some owner(s) had at one point expressed their frustrations to Pitaro.
“So they care deeply about this stuff. I mean, it’s again very Trumpian. They keep score. They read everything about them, whether locally or nationally. I have no doubt whatsoever that Jimmy Pitaro said what he said it was in response probably to something explicit that either Roger Goodell or someone high up at the NFL or some owner said, because that’s a significant change in tune [for ESPN].”
So, wait a minute. Why do we hear about the NFL’s frustrations with ESPN and not Fox? I asked Leibovich how a company that is the broadcast home in some way of people like Clay Travis, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson, all of whom have reveled at one point or another in the league’s declining ratings, has never been on the opposite end of a tisk-tisking by the NFL.
Leibovich said that NFL owners and the league office don’t view any culture war-esque linking of player protests to declining ratings as Fox acting on its own. “They are very unhappy with the president and insomuch as that he can be linked to Fox, I mean that’s going to be part of it,” he said.
Leibovich also said that his sense is that maybe Fox doesn’t care about the NFL’s feelings as much as Disney and ESPN do. “I mean, I don’t totally rule out the idea that this kind of unhappiness has been conveyed privately, but I also wouldn’t underestimate the spine and the power frankly in the levers that Fox has in these conversations. My sense is they don’t really care, and frankly as long as they’re writing a check, I mean they basically get the only vote that counts.”
You can be the most liberal, Fox-hating person on the planet. If you’re a broadcaster and reading that quote, there’s almost no way you don’t think “Right on, Fox!” to yourself.
3. HAS THE NFL CONSIDERED THAT MAYBE IT ISN’T AS POPULAR AS IT USED TO BE BECAUSE FOOTBALL ISN’T AS POPULAR AS IT USED TO BE?
Part of what made me interested in talking to Mark was the way he talked about the priorities of NFL owners on an episode of Pod Save America. Host Dan Pfeiffer asked if the League recognizes the inherent problem with a generation of parents that don’t want their sons playing football.
Leibovich echoed his comments on that show when I first asked him about the digital future of the League’s media rights. “They’re old. They think very much year to year.” When I asked about what kind of value team owners think their property will have in the long term, he told me that with the NFL, there is never really a long term. “I mean the whole future of the league thing means 10 years or 20 years out.”
What about the NBA? I asked Leibovich if the NFL would ever look to the NBA as a model of where they need to be going in the future, or if the NFL can even acknowledge that the NBA is a competitor that is nipping a little closer at football’s heels than it used to.
“That’s a good question. I mean the only context I’ve heard in the league is people high up in the league talk about the NBA from an owner’s level. There’s some kind of envy that they have a commissioner that seems to get it. And those are private owner conversations, but those conversations definitely exist and I have had them with multiple owners.
“The other part of it is just I think annoyance on the part of people like Roger Goodell that he has been often compared unfavorably to Adam Silver. I think he’s sick of hearing about Adam Silver this and Adam Silver that. I think, you know, maybe he recognizes Adam Silver as a commissioner who is in the midst of the honeymoon that Goodell himself enjoyed back in the first two years of the commissionership which kind of ended abruptly. So I would say that the context I’ve heard them talk about the NBA is they are purely less as competitors but more as, you know, upstarts. I mean, rivals to some degree and someone to be jealous of to some degree.”
Believe it or not, Mark Leibovich says there is actually reason to be optimistic for the NFL’s future. “I think I said this also [on Pod Save America], there are some very smart…I would say “number two’s” at some of the clubs.”
The problem is that older owners will have to retire or…let’s say “worse” for those number twos to get the kind of control they need to make a difference. “A lot of them are heirs to the owners. I mean Jonathan Kraft I would put, you know, number one two, or three. There’s Tony Kahn of Jacksonville and Kevin Demhoff with the Rams. They’re all super smart. But again, it’s basically the owners with the power.”
Big Game is an absolutely fantastic read. I highly recommend you invest some time in it. To read anything he has written or watch videos of any one of the hundreds of TV appearances he has made through the years, go to his website.