PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- When the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills take the field Sunday for the Hall of Fame Game, the NFL is officially back.
Warts and all.
Fans worried about their favorite players just making it through the preseason unscathed should save at least a little concern for how the NFL plans to pry even more money out of their hands. Last year, the NFL made nearly $10 billion in revenue, with roughly $6 billion of that divided among team owners. The NFL's money machine made more than the $8 billion generated by Major League Baseball over the same span and more than the revenue produced by the National Basketball Association ($5 billion) and National Hockey League ($3.7 billion) combined. Its television revenue is only going up, as it's reworking a $1 billion-a-year deal with DirecTV for its NFL Sunday Ticket package for out-of-town games and just took $275 million from CBS to broadcast Thursday Night Football this season.
Overall, Fox, CBS and NBC pay the NFL $28 billion -- or roughly $1 billion a year -- for broadcast rights through 2022. ESPN pays $1.9 billion each year -- or more than double what any network pays for a season of Major League Baseball -- just to host Monday Night Football. Meanwhile, the networks are more than happy to cough up the money, as 34 of the 35 most-watched television shows in the fall of 2013 were NFL games.
None of this satisfies the money-hungry league. Game attendance jumped from a post-recession low of 17.14 million in 2010 to 17.3 million last year, but was still well short of the record 17.6 million that came out in 2006 and 2007. There were nearly 1 million empty seats at regular-season games last year, up 50% from just four years earlier. Meanwhile ticket revenue has stagnated from increases of 7.2% annually from 2004 through 2008 to just 2.1% for the past four years, according to Team Marketing Report. That shouldn't be terribly surprising, as fans with high-definition television options at home are loath to pay for average NFL ticket prices that have increased $20 to $81 since 2006. But the continued use of public money for stadiums such as the San Francisco 49ers' recently opened Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara and the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons' stadiums under construction is putting taxpayer dollars toward teams regardless of whether that taxpayer ever attends a game.
As 205 million unique viewers in 81% of U.S. television homes made abundantly clear last year, the U.S. still loves the NFL. It's a dysfunctional romance, but U.S. sports fans lavish more attention on this particular sport than almost any other. Consider the U.S. men's national team drew 18.3 million viewers per World Cup match to the NFL's 17.6 million per regular-season game, but the 29.2 million viewers who watched the World Cup final were still fewer than the 30 million who watched the Oakland Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys play on Thanksgiving last year.
It's the nation's beloved sports league, but it inevitably hurts the ones it loves. Here are five ways the National Football League is going to leave fans emotionally wrecked this season:
1. It'll move their team: We would love to take this item off the list at some point, but it's just how the NFL works.
Looking around the league, there are at least four teams whose futures in their current cities are in question. The Buffalo Bills are without an owner after their founder and stadium namesake Ralph Wison died in March. In June, the firm handling Wilson's estate contacted prospective buyers including Donald Trump, Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula and a group including rocker Jon Bon Jovi and the heads of Toronto-based Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (owner of the NHL's Blue Jays, the NBA's Raptors and MLS' F.C. Toronto) and Rogers Communications (the media company that also owns the Toronto Blue Jays).
Though Erie County and New York State just paid more than $220 million to update Ralph Wilson Stadium, that cash would basically be flushed if new ownership decided to move the team closer to Rochester, N.Y., to a new site within Buffalo, to Niagara Falls or to Toronto. That last option seems at least likely if the Bon Jovi group offers a successful bid, but the Bills' Toronto Series featuring one home game a year in that town didn't exactly draw sold-out crowds.
In St. Louis, meanwhile, owner Stan Kroenke took the liberty of buying a site in a sports complex in Los Angeles just to leverage a better stadium deal out of his town. Kroenke and the rest of his ownership group have been griping about the $700 million "first-tier" stadium they were promised by 2015 and their threats to move the team out of the city into the St. Louis County suburbs or beyond. They already did a long stint in Los Angeles from 1946 to 1994, but the fact that they'd consider returning to the city and only getting closer to their NFC West rivals doesn't seem to sit poorly with NFL owners.
At least not NFL owners outside of California. Every California NFL team shy of the 49ers is also giving Los Angeles a hard look. The Oakland Raiders are looking for a stadium, but have been reluctant to accept the 49ers' offer to share their new building in Santa Clara -- an offer Goodell endorsed emphatically when he helped open the stadium this month. Meanwhile, the Spanos family that owns the San Diego Chargers continues its war of attrition with taxpayers over a replacement for Qualcomm Stadium. The Spanos clan wants a tricked-out facility, but San Diego isn't budging on anything other than a facility that would expand on its existing convention center.
That's three teams leveraging a city that has room for only two of them and hasn't proved it can support even one in more than 20 years. Somebody will get left out and have to play ball with the locals, but it's more likely they'll all just keep using L.A. to extort taxpayers into paying for new buildings -- as the Vikings did in Minnesota.