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Viewpoint: Why Roger Goodell is the next Brandon Tartikoff

"The NFL is so important, its scraps are like saffron."

"The NFL is so important, its scraps are like saffron."

Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the National Football League, recognizes service members during the 2023 NFL Draft at Union Station, Kansas City, Missouri, April 29, 2023.

This guest column originally appeared on Substack. It is a follow-up to a previously published column called “Hey, what’s the big idea?,” which you can read here.

Brandon Tartikoff was my hero growing up. Famously, he scribbled MTV and Cops on a napkin and created the 1980s icon, Miami Vice. His genius was to see trends and combine them in new ways. Recently, my friend, Matthew, asked me: Who is the streaming industry’s Brandon Tartikoff?

I had no idea. So, I used a process to pick one. Notwithstanding some fits and starts, Netflix started the streaming era. They have the most customers. They make the most money. They, in my opinion, have the best tech. So, if Netflix is the first streamer, the biggest one, and the best one then — using the Biblical begetting model — it stands to reason that the person who started Netflix should be the most Tartikoff person in streaming.

So, Reed Hastings.

But he just doesn’t inspire me the way Tartikoff did. That could be because I was a pie-eyed teenager in 1981. Today, I’m just an uninspirable grump. Or, maybe it’s because Tartikoff had more of an “it” factor. The guy was on “Night Court” — the original, not that rebooted abomination.

So, back to the drawing board.

After a pause. I took a different approach. In 1981, broadcast was television. There were three networks. Fox didn’t exist. Cable was an upstart. Local indies and some UHF stuff didn’t do much more than replay “Gilligan’s Island” and “WKRP.” Blessed their hearts. Which meant the dominant person had to be one of the people who headed ABC, CBS, or NBC.

So I reframed the question as: Who is TV 2.0’s Brandon Tartikoff? By TV, I mean broadcast, cable, streaming, and a slew of acronyms for versions of TV that you pay for or don’t, that show ads or don’t. They share a common trait. It’s where we watch shows, movies, and live events. By that loose definition, you could add YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, and many other sites.

Then, it hit me, “A wild one — Godell (sic).” Matthew, “Roger Goddell? (sic) The NFL guy?” Actually, we’re both off. It’s Roger Stokoe Goodell. Yes, the NFL guy. Or, to be more precise, the Commissioner of the National Football League.

Last year, 19 of the top 20 watched shows were NFL games. Further, 82 of the top 100 watched events were NFL games. Sportico’s stellar data visual permanently etched those stats in my brain. The league’s games run on Fox, CBS, NBC, Prime Video, YouTube, and on cable (ESPN). Over the next decade, the NFL will get $125 billion for their broadcast rights. Looked at from the other direction, 64 percent of NFL team revenue comes from TV.

Football and TV aren’t new to each other. NBC showed the Philadelphia Eagles – Brooklyn Dodgers game in 1939. There were 1000 sets back then. Yes, in the whole country. Gotta figure the share was excellent.

The NFL is so important, its scraps are like saffron. In 1980, ESPN showed the NFL Draft. The last player picked is dubbed, “Mr. Irrelevant.” Before ESPN, The Draft was Mr. Irrelevant. ESPN asked the NFL for the rights. Then NFL Commissioner, Pete Rozelle thought it was hysterical, “You’re kidding? Who the heck would want to watch the NFL Draft?… Oh, you’re serious.”

To ESPN, just being associated with the NFL was a big deal. Any tie in with the NFL was a hint of where ESPN and cable could go. ESPN was in 4 million homes. Seven years later, ESPN won the rights to show live NFL games on Sunday nights. By then, cable was on the map and ESPN reached 43.7 million homes. It isn’t a complete stretch to say that the NFL helped create ESPN which in turn created the cable bundle.

In 1993, Rupert Murdoch wanted Fox to rival the big three broadcast networks. The line they teach at Harvard Business School is: “Buying the NFL rights is cheaper than buying CBS or NBC outright.”

ABC had prime time Monday nights. CBS has the NFC’s big cities — New York, Philly, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago. NBC had AFC cities. The CBS package was worth the most: CBS offered the NFL $250 million a year for four years. Murdoch offered $1.6 billion for four years — sixty percent more. The NFL’s NFC rights went to Fox. Fox created a viable fourth network for $400 million a year. To put this in context, three years later, Disney bought ABC for $19 billion.

OK, so the NFL dates to the beginnings of broadcast TV, and played a foundational role in cable, helped launch a fourth network, is worth billions, and drives viewership. But, is that all? No.

The league introduced digital lines on live games. While quaint when it started in 1998, today, on-screen graphics are part of the game. The tech blurs the line between live events and video games. So, it’s no surprise that two weeks ago, the NFL animated its live game between the Falcons and the Jaguars. Literally took live game action and made it look like “Toy Story.”

Like the line on the field, it may seem like a gimmick. But its foundations rest in bedrock (the stone, not the animated town). Disney Plus and ESPN Plus stream it. The NFL has hooked a new generation of fans. Live data powers the real-time animation. In 25 years, the crossovers between live games and video games could blur to the point where we’re playing the game in a virtual reality.

Today, the NFL drives every kind of TV.  Tartikoff combined MTV and “COPS.” Goodell combined football with “Toy Story.”

So, yes, I stand by my surprise pick — Roger Goodell. Tartikoff 2.0.

Charles Benaiah is the CEO of Watzan, a techy company for medical media. When he’s not running a media company, he reads about media, thinks about it, pull out what’s left of his hair dealing with it, and then he writes about it over on unCharles. Follow him on LinkedIn by clicking or tapping here

The opinion reflected in this article is the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of or its parent company, Solano Media LLC.

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About the Author:

Charles Benaiah

Charles Benaiah is the CEO of Watzan, a techy company for medical media. When he’s not running a media company, he reads about media, thinks about it, pull out what’s left of his hair dealing with it, and then he writes about it over on unCharles. Follow him on LinkedIn by clicking or tapping here