The owners did not want to speak publicly about league business before Wednesday’s owners’ meetings.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones tried for months to undermine the new deal, arguing that Goodell should not be rewarded with a new contract while the league was facing big challenges, like the decline in television ratings and player protests during the national anthem. Jones hired the star lawyer David Boies and threatened to sue his fellow owners if they did not halt the contract talks, a move that led to his ouster last month from the compensation committee.
At the one-day owners’ meetings here on Wednesday, Jones and several of his allies continued to quietly complain about the deal, Goodell’s leadership and a league office they believe is filled with too many meddlesome executives.
Speaking after the meeting, Goodell tried to downplay the friction created by his contract extension. He said that the league was stronger because owners were able to disagree, both among themselves and with the commissioner. He added that his relationship with Jones has not been damaged.
“We don’t always agree, I’m not paid to agree and he’s not paid to agree with me,” Goodell said.
Goodell then gave Jones an awkward hug and left the room.
Jones took the podium and said the owners will consider changing the N.F.L.’s constitution to give them more sway over league executives, including the commissioner. He added that the owners would look at trimming the power of the department that investigates off-field behavior by players.
Jones tried to downplay the tension he created when he threatened to sue the owners on the compensation committee, saying that he was only trying to improve the league. But he also took a dig at the size of the commissioner’s new contract.
“I know how much Roger Goodell loves the National Football League, and he should love it even more right now,” he said.
Ultimately, Jones failed to derail Goodell’s new contract because of a basic truth: Whatever their differences, most owners believe Goodell is still the best man to lead the league, and they know there is no credible replacement they could agree on. That’s why, in May, the owners voted unanimously to extend his contract through 2024, and they raised little fuss when the compensation committee offered him a deal worth up to $40 million a year.
Arthur Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons and the chairman of the compensation committee, said on Wednesday that most of the other owners were glad the fight with Jones was over.
“The owners were bothered by anything that was a distraction from the league, the league’s business,” Blank said. “There was a strong feeling in the room that we need to bond together, be together.”
Many owners say it would be risky to replace Goodell at a critical juncture for the N.F.L. Roughly half of the league’s revenue comes from broadcast and media deals, yet television ratings are down for the second straight year. In the coming years, networks could balk at paying even more for the rights to show games as the league continues to chip away at the legacy media companies’ traditional lock on N.F.L. content. Digital media companies, such as Amazon, Facebook and Netflix, have shown little appetite for competing for rights that now cost more than $1 billion a year.
Some of the world’s most prosperous companies clamor to become league sponsors, but that enthusiasm has been eroded by a series of public relations disasters, including, most recently, the protests during the national anthem.
Leaguewide attendance has held steady at around 17 million fans a year, but a growing number of fans are turned off by the price of attending games and have decided instead to watch at home, or not at all.
Goodell has also been criticized for his heavy handed discipline of players, which has often been followed by lawsuits and expensive investigations that have shifted the focus away from the action on the field. Now Goodell will grapple with a lawsuit from a former NFL Network employee who has accused former co-workers of sexual harassment and assault.
“We take that very seriously,” Goodell said. “Those are issues that are important to us. We want to make sure all of our employees, whether at the NFL Network or league office, or at clubs, are working in a safe and comfortable environment.”
While some owners have said Goodell was too slow to grasp the magnitude of the player safety issue and domestic violence within the league, they have profited handsomely under Goodell’s leadership. League revenue has tripled under his watch, and every franchise is worth more than $1 billion.
Also, with the league’s labor agreement set to expire in 2020, and its television contracts expiring in 2021 and 2022, Goodell’s institutional knowledge could be difficult to replace. He has been willing to cede much of the power during labor and media negotiations to a handful of key owners, something a hypothetical replacement might not be willing to do.
“In an industry as complicated as ours, with fans, media, owners and players, you have to have someone who understands the league’s business,” another owner said. “You need to understand each owner’s personality, understand the process and understand how to get votes.”
Ultimately, Goodell’s primary job is to increase the value of the league by bringing in more revenue. On that front he gets high marks from most owners. On Monday, the league said that it had extended its mobile streaming agreement with Verizon through 2022, a deal worth at least $2 billion, roughly double the value of the last deal.
Still, several owners said that they have protected themselves in case Goodell falters. They structured his contract so that 90 percent of his compensation is based on financial and nonfinancial goals, and the members of three influential committees made up of about 20 owners will decide whether he meets the targets.
According to several owners, Goodell has already said that he will not seek another contract beyond 2024, when he will be 65. Grooming a successor, or searching for one outside the league’s Park Avenue headquarters, will be one of his chief responsibilities. One owner added that Goodell may leave after a new labor deal is struck or the league’s broadcast contracts are renewed, and not finish his contract.
“I think there is a limit to how many years you should serve in this,” Goodell said. “I’m prepared and ready to go.”
At the very least, the fight over Goodell’s contract and his leadership skills has forced the owners to openly discuss the league’s future, another owner said. With the contract dispute seemingly resolved, the owners are confronting the far more complex and daunting tasks ahead.
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