NFL player power back in the spotlight
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It’s been a rocky start to the sporting year in the US, where this week a deeply troubling scene played out on Monday Night Football: a defensive player for the Buffalo Bills suffered cardiac arrest on live television, halting play in the penultimate week of the National Football League regular season and presenting fresh questions for a league that has long grappled with safety.
We use the distressing incident to take a look at the ups and downs of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell‘s tenure, as well as assess the implications for the way the league operates. We also dip into Saudi Arabian football, where one of the greatest players in history has decided to take his next step.
Meanwhile, a reminder that you can join La Liga President Javier Tebas, new AC Milan owner Gerry Cardinale, super agent Rafaela Pimenta and many more at the Business of Football Summit on 1-2 March to discuss the new wave of investment flowing into the game. As a Scoreboard subscriber, you can register for your complimentary digital pass using promo code PREMIUM23, or save £200 on your in-person pass to join us at The Biltmore Mayfair, on March 2. Register here.
Do read on — Sara Germano, US sports business correspondent
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Damar Hamlin and the push for NFL contract reform
It was a sight unlike any seen before at a National Football League game this past Monday night. Buffalo Bills defensive player Damar Hamlin, 24 years old and in just his second season in the NFL, suffered a cardiac arrest on the field. With his life hanging in the balance, the teams and the league suspended the game, an unprecedented step even within a sport rife with grave injuries and persistent questions about its safety.
By Friday, Hamlin’s condition had improved and he was awake and speaking with teammates via FaceTime from the hospital. But his case raises urgent questions for the most lucrative sport in the world.
According to current terms of the labour agreement between the NFL and its players’ association, athletes must be credited with at least three seasons in the league before they are eligible for benefits including a pension, life insurance, disability coverage, a 401(k), and health insurance upon retirement from play. Hamlin’s current four-year, $3.6mn contract with the Bills only guaranteed his $160,476 signing bonus, according to Sportrac, and with just two credited seasons is not yet vested for benefits.
The NFL is an anomaly among US pro leagues for its contract structure; the NBA, MLB, and NHL all have largely guaranteed salaries for their players, with some general exceptions within the athlete’s control.
Given the mountain of evidence regarding American football’s inherent violence and safety risks, coupled with the skyrocketing financial performance of the league overall (more than $124bn in media rights agreements have been signed between the NFL and broadcast partners in the past two years, the most costly in the world), Hamlin’s critical injury is prompting an urgent look at financial compensation for players.
“My question to you, the NFL, is when do salaries become guaranteed?” asked Garrett Bush, a former collegiate football player and co-host of the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show, during an impassioned rant this week. “You don’t want to pay for somebody that’s broken and battered and can’t take care of themselves because it costs you money. It is all about money.”
The NFL and the NFLPA did not respond to requests for comment about whether they were considering guaranteed contracts, either in general or in Hamlin’s case.
There is another incentive for both sides to adjust player contracts in the future. The NFL largely depends upon US college football programmes for talent development; with new rules enabling student athletes to receive pay and talk of potential revenue-sharing between university conferences and teams, football players will probably soon have more choices for building a career in the sport beyond the NFL.
“I’m not sure if the kind of changes taking place in college football are of that much concern to the NFL”, said Victoria Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State University. “But they’re absolutely related because we’re talking about a labour ecosystem”.
Cristiano Ronaldo: Saudi ambassador for football
For years the debate has raged over who is the greatest football player of this generation: Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. In the past few weeks, the dividing line has become much clearer. As Messi guided Argentina to their first World Cup win since 1986 last month in Qatar, the crowning achievement in his glittering career, Ronaldo was thrashing out terms for a lucrative deal to join Saudi Arabian team Al-Nassr.
At his unveiling this week, Ronaldo said he had made the move after achieving everything in the European game — a fair claim for someone who has won both the Ballon d’Or and the Champions League five times. He also confused his new home with South Africa, an awkward gaffe that drew a snappy response from the South African tourist board.
Ronaldo was tipped to make his debut in the yellow and blue of the Riyadh-based champions yesterday. But a suspension held over from his time at Manchester United has delayed his first appearance until later this month, disappointing the thousands of fans who bought tickets in anticipation.
Still, Ronaldo’s move isn’t really about what happens on the pitch anyway. A number of other emerging leagues have tried to bring in big names to boost interest in domestic football — the US and China being two notable examples — but the effects are often fleeting, and the stars typically well past their best. Also, Ronaldo’s move has not been followed by a wave of other top tier arrivals, at least not yet, greatly limiting the impact his presence will have across the game.
For the widely reported sum of around $200mn a year, the Portuguese forward, who turns 38 next month, will instead become the face of Saudi Arabia’s football charm offensive. As the most popular person on social media (529mn followers on Instagram alone), Ronaldo’s brand has a reach nobody else in the world can match. Messi, meanwhile, is already the frontman for the Gulf kingdom’s international tourism campaign.
So as the Saudis weigh up a bid to host the World Cup in 2030, and with Ronaldo and Messi both on the payroll, we could see a situation where the game’s two biggest names are promoting a Saudi bid in opposition to rival offers from their own home countries: Portugal and Spain are leading a European effort, while Argentina would be at the heart of a mooted pan-South American push.
There’s a bigger point being made here. By committing as much as half a billion dollars to a single player at the tail-end of his career, the Saudis are making it clear to the world that money is no object when it comes to achieving their football goals.
Will India do for women’s cricket what the IPL has done for the men’s game? That’s the question we look to answer in this video, the latest in the Scoreboard series.
Brazil wants to revamp its football league so it can take on the rest of the world. The FT’s Michael Pooler has this smart column on where things are heading.
Following the collapse of FTX, sports businesses are rethinking their approach to the crypto industry — a major source of sponsorship revenue in recent years.
Eric Nicoli, former chief executive and chair of EMI, has been picked as the new chair of golf’s European Tour, becoming only the third person to hold the position in the group’s 50-year history. His appointment comes LIV, the Saudi-backed start-up tour, challenges the golf’s establishment.
The NBA has named Lesley Slatton Brown as its next chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, joining the league from an adjacent role at personal computing company HP. Slatton Brown played basketball herself at Boise State University, and has been recognised as a leader in diversity and corporate affairs by Black Enterprise Magazine, Forbes, and Business Insider.
This week the world of football lost one of its most popular characters — former Italian striker Gianluca Vialli, who died on Friday after a long battle with cancer.
As the top scorer in Serie A, Vialli helped Sampdoria to their only league title in 1991, and later won the Champions League with Juventus. He brought his charisma to the Premier League at Chelsea in 1996, where he won the FA Cup and the Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup, the latter as player-manager. He was the first Italian head coach in England’s top division.
Many will remember the moment a tearful Vialli embraced Italian national manager Roberto Mancini, a close friend and former teammate at Sampdoria, after the Azzurri secured victory over England in the final of Euro 2020.
Scoreboard is written by Josh Noble, Samuel Agini and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team