If there is a professional sports organization that has every right to sit back and enjoy the moment, it would have to be the
National Football League
. In the last year, it has achieved unprecedented popularity for sports programming and landed a record $17.6 billion television package. Professional football has been a climber that has resided in some pretty nice neighborhoods, but now you could say it has a Fifth Avenue address.
There is a lot of pride at the league in having secured the television package, which commits broadcast rights to
numbers engage similar feelings: They say 113 million people worldwide watch NFL games each fall weekend.
But the NFL is not complacent, which seems to set it apart from other professional sports leagues: It sees that the landscape of professional sports can change and that there always is room for improvement, no matter how good things seem. Pro football wants to keep that Fifth Avenue feeling -- and think about moving up to a penthouse apartment.
"It seems like everything is good news right now," says Chris Widmaier, director of corporate communications for the NFL. "But complacency is what can kill a business. There is a recognition among ranking executives that we must anticipate the things that can affect our standing."
Some might think the league has taken things to an extreme. It sees possible pitfalls 10 and 20 years out, and it has acted to try to maintain its standing.
Research by the league indicates that its fan base remains with one age group that won't be around forever, and that there are demographics -- males and females younger than 25 -- where strides can be made. So the NFL is working to launch promotions and events that it hopes will sustain the current base and pay dividends in the near and distant future.
"Things are good in 1999," Widmaier said, "but we want to be sure things are at least as good in 2009 and 2019."
Young people are probably the biggest concern because they are any business' future. The NFL has partnered with several large corporations to create programs that give youths what it sees as the two keys to its version of brand loyalty: education and participation.
"Kids aren't participating in sports the way they used to because there are more things competing for their free time," Widmaier said.
Scott Lancaster, senior director of youth football programs for NFL Properties, added: "There are video games. like PlayStation
. These are things kids didn't do 20 and 30 years ago."
The numbers for the video game industry are staggering. According to the
, a New York research firm, it is a $6.3 billion market, if one includes software and accessories, that saw a 46% increase in sales last year. Paradoxically, the top-selling software segment is sports games, a category that NPD says is dominated by
The NFL is fighting back with several weapons.
One of the weapons is familiar to anyone who has grown up a football fan: Punt, Pass and Kick, a national skills competition run for grade-school-age kids. With financial help from Gatorade
, the NFL has been able to convince school systems to make the competition available to kids in the regular course of physical education.
In 1994, when 12-year-old Kendra Wecker of Kansas reached the nationals, NFL execs thought to create girls-only divisions. By 1996, 125,000 girls had entered, and the number is now closer to 160,000.
Then there is the NFL Flag, which is co-sponsored by
. These are flag football leagues for kids grouped by ages 6 to 10 and 11 to 15 that the NFL runs all over the country. Here, too, the advent of all-girls divisions brought increased participation.
"It's available to 45% to 50% of the nation," Widmaier said. "Kids get to know the game and then they want to watch and play."
In the Bronx, the NFL is doing something really revolutionary with corporate partner
. It's running a prototype for a program that would seek to develop kids' football skills with an eye toward boosting participation. NFL Junior Player Development has $100 million to spend over the next eight years.
The program is being run in a largely immigrant neighborhood at the poor end of the socioeconomic scale. All 150 participants are 12 to 14 years old and have never played football. The NFL and Ford pick up the tab for all of them, providing a facility, pads, uniforms and league-trained coaches to implement a highly structured program.
"They learn everything from the three-point stance to the handoff to different kinds of blocking,'' says Jerry Horowitz, a local high school coach the league tapped to help design the program. "Every kid plays every position to maximize the experiences he gets."
The program seems to be paying off already.
To many kids who thought football was the game played with the round ball and the big nets, it has been a thrilling experience. "I love doing this," said 13-year-old Gabriel Taveras. "I never understood football, but now I want to play it in high school."
It also has struck a chord with the kids' parents. "We are so proud our son is being trained by the NFL," said Marina De La Rosa, one player's mother. "It is something we tell everyone we know about."
The NFL is also focusing new attention on immigrants in general.
"We see it as win-win," Lancaster said, noting that it is an opportunity for many to learn a new sport. "It might even one day lead to a college scholarship. And we have people who participated in an NFL program and that likely will make them identify with watching games in person or on TV."
Another more general marketing move is the new
Under the Helmet
show that soon will air on Fox. It's a magazine program aimed at 12- to 25-year-olds. Its goal is to educate viewers about football and its players.
And a last crucial concern is addressing people who patronize new media. "We want to make sure we reach our fan base, wherever it will be," Widmaier said.
He points out that the NFL was the first league with a Web site, started in 1995, and the first to offer a satellite television package.
Widmaier said the NFL constantly conducts studies to keep abreast of the market. "We can't afford to fall behind," he said.
The other leagues, like the
National Basketball Association
National Hockey League
, might be jealous of how the NFL does business. Maybe that comes with Fifth Avenue status. But how can you begrudge such an aggressive organization its success?
Roger Rubin has covered sports in the New York area for 10 years. He is a staff writer for the New York Daily News, covering high school and college sports. He appreciates your feedback at