1. College Football Fatigue
The NFL's minor league, otherwise known as the NCAA/BCS, is about to promote its next crop of would-be rookies. Before we say goodbye to the kids, and even as we're experiencing a bad case of football fatigue from the 394 bowl games played over the past three weeks, we're looking forward to one last college football hurrah in Arizona, otherwise known as the Tostito's BCS National Championship Game.
Top-ranked Auburn and likewise undefeated No. 2 Oregon square off at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale on Monday, and Tigers and Ducks fans are making this the highest-selling BCS game in StubHub's 10-year tenure, claims the Web-based ticket reselling giant. StubHub currently lists about 500 tickets to Monday's game, and fans so far are paying an average price of $997, from $450 for the building's upper reaches to $4,118 for prime seats. The game, according to a StubHub release, is in higher demand than last year's matchup between Texas and victor Alabama, which fans paid an average of $882 to see. So far this year, Alabama buyers outnumber Oregon buyers by close to two to one, despite having to travel much farther to attend the game—and despite Oregon (T-26) outranking Auburn (T-36) in ESPN's poll of Favorite College Football Teams by 10 ranking points.
With the help of the SEC, Auburn's operating revenue far outstrips Oregon's, at $87 million for the 2008-09 school year (the most recent data available) compared with Oregon's $59 million. Oregon comes out on top on the apparel end—the school's deal with Nike (NKE) in Beaverton, Ore., is worth about $3.4 million a year, compared with Auburn's roughly $2.1 million a year deal with Under Armour (UA). It doesn't hurt the Ducks that Nike's Phil Knight is their biggest booster, and it certainly fills their closets, as the team reportedly has almost 2,500 different uniform combinations.
Each school participating in the national championship contest should also see a marked increase in licensing royalties on hats, shirts, and all other products bearing their logos and mascots. After Texas won the national championship in 2006, UT officials reported licensing royalties for products bearing the Longhorn logo doubling, to $8.2 million. Comparatively, Oregon reported about $1.8 million in licensing royalties last year.
It remains to be seen whether the Tostito's BCS National Championship Game will mirror the decline in viewership in each of the four just-completed BCS bowls, a double-digit falloff at least partially caused by ESPN's monopoly on the BCS and the games moving off broadcast TV.
And you think your football fatigue is bad? Consider the Oregon Duck's mascot. The Duck's schtick is to perform a pushup each time the team scores. So far this year, thanks to Oregon's high-wattage offense, the Duck had to perform 2,757 pushups, or an average of 230 pushups per game throughout the regular season. That should make him one buff Duck.
2. BCS into NFL: Early Look at the 2011 Draft
Among the 200-odd players suiting up for Monday's Tostito's BCS National Championship Game are a couple of highly touted likely Top 10 picks in the 2011 NFL Draft. Should they make the decision to declare for the draft and go pro, as is widely anticipated, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley and beleaguered quarterback Cam Newton are almost consensus Top 10 picks among draft specialists in the media and such exclusive scouting sites as Scout. On Oregon's sideline, explosive running back LaMichael James is expected to be picked deep in the second round.
Other BCS bowl games have boosted the visibility of top prospects, including Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett (Sugar Bowl loss), Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and Gabe Carimi (Rose Bowl loss), and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck (Orange Bowl victory), widely thought to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft before he announced on Thursday that he'd be staying at Stanford.
If they declare, all of these athletes can expect to navigate high hurdles at next month's NFL Combine in Indianapolis. A bigger hurdle, of course, in both their decision-making process and eventually cashing that first NFL paycheck is the looming expiration of the current NFL collective bargaining agreement on Mar. 3. The Apr. 21-23 NFL Draft will be held in New York even if no consensus is reached on a new agreement before then, but the in-flux situation causes an extra level of stress with the NFL's newest class: In the face of uncertainty, should they declare or stay in school? If they do get drafted by a time, will their pay be governed by a much-discussed new rookie wage scale? Most importantly, will they be suiting up come fall?
With two months left before the NFL CBA expires, no bargaining sessions have been scheduled between the league and the NFLPA. This week, a Special Master hearing in New York is reviewing a complaint the NFLPA filed last June over roughly $4.5 billion in NFL TV rights payments that are guaranteed even if no games are played next season. The NFLPA is seeking to prove that the NFL's 32 owners, in negotiating the television deals, took less money than they could have received from the broadcast and cable networks in exchange for that compensation being guaranteed—serving, in essence, as "lockout insurance" substantial enough to cover any losses the owners would incur if any games are canceled next season. Should the union prevail, it is asking that the $4.5 billion be placed in an escrow account until a new CBA is finalized. Potential also exists for the players to have some or all of the money awarded to them in damages.
Regardless of the outcome of the Special Master session and the next CBA on the NFL's current crop of prospects, future college players may have an easier path to a pro football career. In a recent Q&A with USA Today, NCAA President Mark Emmert questions the extent to which college athletes are restricted from exploring pro careers, following a couple of years in which players' interactions with agents are drawing ever-escalating sanctions.
"You want to be an accountant?" Emmert asked. "Fine, we're going to introduce you to every accounting firm we can. We're going to bring in accountants to talk to you. You're going to get a summer internship.
"Say you want to be a Major League Baseball player," he concluded, "and you're toast. We don't let you talk to anybody."
3. An Early Look at the 2011 NFL Playoffs
Uncertainly clouds the 2011-12 NFL season. Right now, they're still playing football.
The NFL postseason kicks off this weekend with a slate of wild card games that include 7-9 Seattle playing the World Champion New Orleans Saints and old-timer teams such as the Chiefs, the Eagles, and the Packers. It's setting up to be an East Coast battle in the divisional rounds, as the Seahawks and the Chiefs are the only teams left standing west of the Mississippi. (Note to league: better expedite getting a team to L.A.)
Overall, the NFL had a banner season, averaging 66,960 fans per game and boasting 10 teams that were at 100 percent capacity or better, matching the league's numbers from last season. Among AFC teams, attendance was flat compared with last year, with the colorful New York Jets leading the way with 78,596 fans per game during their first season at New Meadowlands Stadium. NFC teams averaged a slightly higher 67,527 fans per game this season, led by the Dallas Cowboys and their loyal blue-and-silver brigade of fans, 87,047 on average per game, the Redskins, and the New York Giants, who averaged 79,020 at New Meadowlands. (Take that, Rex Ryan.)
On television, happy partner NBC averaged a 13.0 final Nielsen rating and 21.8 million viewers for its 18 NFL telecasts this fall, the network's best numbers since it began airing Sunday Night Football five years ago, according to SportsBusiness Daily. NBC finished this past Sunday night with an 11.3 rating and 19.4 million viewers for the St. Louis Rams-Seattle Seahawks "win or go home" game, marking the best NFL finale since Patriots-Dolphins earned a 21.8 rating on ABC in 1997.
In Las Vegas, sports book directors are reporting a 10 percent increase in profit from NFL betting this season and 20 percent more traffic overall from 2009. The Atlanta Falcons (4-1) and Pittsburgh Steelers (9-2) have replaced the Jets as popular choices to reach the Super Bowl.
But perhaps all these numbers mask a foregone conclusion. In Boston, the Boston Herald notes that as the league-best 14-2 New England Patriots and likely NFL MVP Tom Brady "prepare for another run at an NFL championship with possibly two home playoff games, merchants are stocking up to meet the rising demand from fans." Smelling another victory, Patriots fans are snapping up $25 AFC East Champion hats and $20 T-shirts. After the Pats' bye week, when they retake the field in earnest, team merchandisers and regional retailers are anticipating record sales of anything bearing the Minuteman logo. And Vegas bookmakers are backing the Patriots in a big way—New England is the 6-5 favorite to win Super Bowl XLV.