As the National Football League opens its season in earnest today, it's more popular - and prosperous - than ever.
A record 18 million fans attended games last year, as regular season crowds averaged nearly 68,000. The league says TV ratings are up and more people watched the Super Bowl than voted in the 2004 presidential election. Even the virtual NFL is growing: Millions of fans participate in fantasy leagues, and the Madden NFL video game was the top console and hand-held game of 2006, with 2.8 million sold.
Still, the NFL sees new worlds to conquer.
The league wants to broaden its fan base - especially by reaching out to Hispanics and women. Seeking an international foothold, it has scheduled a game in London next month, the first regular season game to be played outside North America. Meanwhile, it is building a powerful cable network and is experimenting with technology that would give fans a view of the game from the quarterback's perspective.
"There are more fans to be had. We have to avoid getting arrogant and we need to offer new ways for our fans to access the sizzle of the NFL," said Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass, whose team opens in Cincinnati tomorrow night against the Bengals.
The Ravens have prospered along with the league. Although Baltimore is the nation's 24th-largest television market, the Ravens say they are 13th in the league in revenues - a ranking that experts attribute to the franchise's success in selling suites and sponsorships, and having a stadium that is just nine years old. The Ravens franchise is valued at $946 million, ninth in the NFL, according to Forbes' annual survey. A sign of the league's success is that a majority of the most highly valued sports franchises are NFL teams.
Like the NFL, Ravens officials are looking for new fans. In one recent move, the team announced the creation of "Purple," a women's club billed as "a community entirely for themselves."
But in the midst of its success, the NFL has faced some challenges. Increasingly, with the NFL Network, NFL.com and team Web sites, the league is trying to control its content in an effort to make even more money.
Comcast and the NFL Network have gone to court over Comcast's decision to move the NFL Network to a more expensive sports tier of digital service on its cable systems. Plus, media organizations have expressed concern about the league's policy limiting them to 45 seconds of online video interviews per day at team sites.
"The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the world," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director for San Francisco-based Pickett Advertising and author of the Sports Marketers' Scouting Report. "They set course and do what they want. The demand for football right now seems to be endless. I think they're looking at that and saying 'Let's control things more, get more of the piece of the pie for us.'
"And, given some of the player issues they've had this past year, maybe it's an attempt to control the message a bit. Other leagues will probably look at the NFL to see how it goes, and I suspect if it's successful, they'll follow suit."
It's the troublesome player issues that could make it harder to attract new fans.
Atlanta Falcons star Michael Vick was indefinitely suspended last month after pleading guilty to federal dogfighting charges. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who has also suspended Tennessee Titans cornerback Adam "Pac Man" Jones, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry and former Chicago Bear Tank Johnson for off-the-field conduct, says he doesn't want the league's image tainted by scattered instances of bad behavior.
Now, the NFL's challenge is to tinker without upsetting the product that has become a model for other leagues.
One key to the NFL's success is that it looks great on television and has become a habit in many households, said Colorado-based sociologist Jay Coakley. Like a gregarious uncle arriving every Christmas, the league has become part of our routine.
"It gets integrated into family life," Coakley said. "It provides a common topic of conversation, and that's really important. It's a great conversation opener and a way to initiate togetherness in a bar or on an airplane."
The NFL season officially began Thursday night when the defending champion Indianapolis Colts hosted the New Orleans Saints. That in itself - the Super Bowl champion being awarded a pre-Sunday home game complete with concerts by pop musical acts Kelly Clarkson and John Mellencamp - is a new wrinkle that began in 2004.
It's one of many changes that the league has made or has in the works. Among them:
Up to two international regular-season games will be scheduled each year, league officials say. The new format begins when the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins play Oct. 28 at London's Wembley Stadium. Future sites will be Germany, Mexico and Canada. The league has played only one previous regular season game outside the United States - in Mexico City in 2005.
This is a different approach to expanding internationally for the league. The NFL formed a new league, NFL Europa, in 1995, but disbanded it in August. Goodell said the timing was right to close what was essentially a minor league and to focus its international priorities on promoting its core product. Increasing the global audience is a key to the continued success of the NFL, said former league executive Don Garber, now the commissioner of Major League Soccer.
Garber calls the NFL "the dominant professional sports property in the world." Its challenge "is trying to evolve from a domestic-based business to a global business. They will figure it out," he said.
Meanwhile, the league is increasingly reaching out to specific segments of its fan base.
"We have not made great inroads in the Latino community, and there are more women who can be developed as fans," Cass said. Monday night's Ravens-Bengals game will be broadcast in Spanish on ESPN Deportes.
The Ravens and other teams have previously offered football workshops for women called "Football 101," but the team's new "Purple" club is the latest appeal to women. It offers members a monthly newsletter and special events.
The NFL says about 43 percent of its fans are female. "That is a significantly large female base," league spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "We need to do a better job of catering to their needs."
Technology can be used to make the game more appealing to fans. The league is exploring new camera angles, including one from the quarterback's point of view.
"You want to see what Steve McNair was looking at on that touchdown pass to Todd Heap against the Chargers? It would be as if you were right down on the field seeing what the quarterback sees," Cass said.
The feature is being developed for coaches - in film sessions, for example - but will eventually have applications for fans, Cass said.
The league is increasingly showcasing the NFL Network, which debuted in 2003 and will offer eight games this season. The NFL Network's eight games televised in 2006 each ranked as the top-rated show of the day on cable networks, according to the league.
A number of byproducts - video games, gambling, fantasy football - help drive the NFL's success by tightening fans' connections to the games.
In 2006, $1.1 billion was wagered on football in Nevada sports books, accounting for 47 percent of the total sports book handle, according to Frank Streshley, a senior research analyst with the Nevada Gaming Control Board. The figure is for all football wagering; there is no breakdown of NFL and college football betting.
The NFL doesn't condone gambling but it encourages fantasy football, in which fans compete after selecting mock teams. About 13 million to 18 million people participate in fantasy sports, according to various studies. The Ravens say they assist fantasy players by running out-of-town statistics at home games underneath the Smartvision video board.
The Ravens have shared in the NFL's success, and vice versa.
After the team's January 2001 Super Bowl victory in just its fifth season in Baltimore, the Ravens quickly sold about 3,000 more season tickets to push the total to 65,000. It could have sold more, but held back about 5,000 tickets for sale on a game-by-game basis to special groups, its existing season-ticket holders and the public. It still holds back about 4,000 to 5,000 seats and hasn't had trouble selling out.
The club also sold out the remaining 10 percent of suites that hadn't yet been leased. The suites - there are 124 today - can fetch $100,000 to more than $200,000 a year.
The Orioles used to have that kind of drawing power. When the team was winning, Camden Yards was filled and rocking.
But now when it comes to a powerful local sports brand, the Ravens are "the pinnacle," said Lou Lyon, vice president of MedStar Sports Health, a division of MedStar Health, a Ravens sponsor.
"There are 70-some-thousand people coming into that stadium and many more listening to talk shows," said Lyon, whose unit provides medical care to Ravens players. "In terms of value and exposure, it's tremendous."
STILL GOING STRONG
Paid attendance for NFL regular-season games set a record for the fourth straight year, increasing in 2006 to an all-time mark of 67,738 per game.
A Harris Poll in January found that 29 percent of U.S. adults who follow more than one sport considered pro football their favorite. The next most popular was baseball - at 14 percent.
More people watched Super Bowl XL (141.4 million viewers) on Feb. 5, 2006, than voted in the 2004 presidential election.