DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA executive director, says NBA could be model to fight NFL’s declining ratings

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WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — If declining TV ratings are a problem for the NFL, its players would like to know what can be done about them.

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith told ESPN on Saturday that he has recently met with executives at several of the league’s broadcast partners, including CBS, NBC and Fox, to discuss issues related to the game. Entering his 10th year as leader of the players’ union, Smith is looking ahead to the next round of collective bargaining negotiations and wants the players to have a greater voice in what he describes as the league’s “macroeconomic” issues, including the way it presents itself to the public.

“I think that the ratings information is significant and important. If we don’t pay attention to it, I think that we do so at our own peril, from a macroeconomic standpoint,” Smith said Saturday in an interview before his son Alex’s lacrosse game at the University of Hartford. “Certainly, I recognize that we’re lucky that over 30 of the top 50 shows were NFL broadcasts. But I think that you ignore at your own peril not so much just the decline in football, but the overall decline in ratings for most television shows and particularly sports broadcasts.”

Smith pointed to the success the NBA is having right now and a desire to find out more about what’s behind it.

“I think that it’s important to take a look at what’s going on in basketball, because for the most part, I think they are the only sport that more and more people are watching,” Smith said. “And my hat’s off to what they do and how they do it in the NBA. I think that you could make the argument that a lot of their programming is fresher, hipper. They do, I think, a great job of marketing their individual players, sometimes at a time when the [NFL] looks for ways to take their star players off the field. I would be interested in better understanding the relationship between the broadcast partners and the NBA, what that relationship is like, how they do their TV deals, their rights deals.

“But I think that, given the year-over-year ratings issue in football, it begs the question, ‘Should we be doing something different?’ And that might mean the restructuring of the season in a way to make it more fan-friendly.”

Pressed on specific ideas to restructure the NFL season, Smith said he would like to find ways to better feature the best games and maybe even eliminate some that don’t hold the public’s interest.

“You look at the ratings, and you see that marquee matchups buck the trend on declining ratings,” Smith said. “And you also know that there’s groups of games, and let’s just say preseason games to start with. … It’s hard to find a fan that wants to buy a preseason ticket or wants to watch a preseason game. So to me, you’re being intellectually dishonest if you don’t want to look at both of those issues.

“When you do look at playoff games, when you do look at whether they’re division rivalries or games that have a level of significance, those games are not only exciting and people still want to watch them, but those marquee games are still big-time, high-viewership games.”

He suggested a model with fewer regular-season games and another round of playoff games.

“It doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily what you’re going to do, but we are at a point where we the union aren’t going to be this sort of silent other third party out there who’s not involved in the business of football from a stadium, media, Sunday, offseason standpoint,” Smith said. “We’re just not going to do it anymore.”

Smith’s point in meeting with broadcast executives is to establish the NFLPA as demanding a say in vital underlying issues central to the future of the game. He has yet to engage ownership in talks regarding the next CBA but seems to be announcing that, once those talks do start, he would like to be addressing issues more fundamental to the game’s structure and future than the players may have been invited to discuss in the past.

“The reason I’ve reached out is because I’m interested in finding out what our broadcast partners think about our game,” Smith said. “And I want to make sure that we have an environment where not only they are providing important input but so are we, and that we’re all thinking about long-term viability rather than just short-term impacts on revenue.”

“I think that it’s important to take a look at what’s going on in basketball, because for the most part, I think they are the only sport that more and more people are watching. And my hat’s off to what they do and how they do it in the NBA.”

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith

Smith held forth on a number of topics during a roughly 45-minute interview.

• On player health and safety, Smith said he wants to continue to looking at ways to incentivize coaches and teams. Smith said the NFL is very good at establishing punishment structures for players who violate rules, but less willing to look at the extent to which coaches and teams might be complicit.

“For example, if at the end of the year you have a team that’s got the largest number of penalties for X, Y and Z — unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct — should we start considering what’s the impact on the coach stakeholder or the franchise stakeholder?” Smith said. “And that might include what impact that might have with them on draft order. Then you have a regime where everybody’s incentivized.

“Take a defensive player who’s coached or taught repeatedly that, if you can’t break up the pass, separate the receiver from the ball — and we know they’re being coached that way. When the incident happens on the field, if it’s too early, too hard or too high, there’s going to be a penalty and the player’s going to get fined and blah blah blah, blah blah blah. But at the end of the day, it seems to me that you’re still leaving out two other stakeholders, right? The coach that taught him to do it and the team that wants him to do it. And you don’t necessarily take into consideration that the player has not only been told to do it, but he knows if he doesn’t do it, he may not be playing and somebody else who is willing to do it might take his place. That’s a lack of aligned incentives.”

• On the investigation into and pending sale of the Carolina Panthers, Smith said he wants the league to be transparent about the investigation and its conclusions as they pertain to the allegations of harassment against owner Jerry Richardson.

He also took the opportunity to take some further shots at NFL investigators who, he believes, have performed poorly in past disciplinary situations involving players.

“If it’s true that Mary Jo White is involved in the current investigation of the Panthers, I have a question because I know that she falsely accused players in Bounty[gate],” Smith said. “And things that she said to the press were either knowingly untrue or there came a time when we all knew they weren’t true. If it’s true that Lisa Friel is involved in the investigation of the Panthers, then I know for a fact that someone who ignored the conclusions of her own investigator [in the Ezekiel Elliott case] is involved in the investigation of an owner. Neither of those two things should give anyone a level of confidence in the integrity of the investigation.

“So at the very least, it seems to me that the league as a whole and their partners, the players, deserve to have the results of the investigation of the Panthers released publicly before the sale. And that’s simply because, if the premise of the personal conduct policy is the integrity of the league, why shouldn’t we have the same level of transparency that occurs in player investigations occur here?”

• On free agency, which begins in a couple of weeks, Smith said he has his eye on certain high-profile situations like that of quarterback and union rep Kirk Cousins but is also casting a wary eye at what has happened with Major League Baseball’s slow free-agent market this offseason.

“What is happening there can most charitably be described as an anomaly,” Smith said of MLB. “And so, have I been talking with agents in baseball and with our brother/sister union MLPBA to look at what’s going on there? Absolutely. Because anomalies like that in a quote-unquote free-agent market are disturbing.

“We have economic mechanisms like the [spending] minimums. But hypothetically, if the anomaly that is occurring in baseball is motivated by the desire of some owners and some teams, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you’ve got an economic mechanism to prevent it. No economic mechanism is going to prevent a deliberate decision to affect the market. So my takeaway from what’s happening in baseball is that it reminds you at that times, people can make decisions or might want to make decisions that are, in the short term, somewhat self-centered but might end up negatively impacting their sport in a significant way.”

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