PHOENIX – The numbers are startling: 18.4 million fans watch televised NFL games. Thirty-three of the 50 most-watched television events in 2016 were NFL games, and the Super Bowl attracted the highest audience in television history. At-stadium crowds fill an average of 85 percent of the seats each week for games. Staggering, for sure.
The message at the NFL Annual Meeting in Arizona is that of innovation and technology and achieving a 20/20 Vision, which is the theme of this event. Even with the gaudy numbers that dwarf the rest of the national sports world, the NFL knows it has to push more, pull more effectively, and continue to cultivate a new generation of fans.
"It's an opportunity," Eagles president Don Smolenski said on Sunday evening after the league's General Meeting presented club owners, coaches, and key executives a broad overview of the challenges of growing and improving the game, "to take a step back from what we're focusing on day to day in Philadelphia and come out here and sit with all of our league partners and talk about the game in a very broad level and discuss the innovative ways we're trying to grow the great NFL game of football."
For four days the league will meet and, in some cases, vote on some very important issues. The potential relocation of the Raiders, from Oakland to Las Vegas, could be voted on by the owners on Monday. A lengthy list of potential on-field rules changes will be discussed and voted on when the Competition Committee meets. The league will explain its plan to shorten games and make the downtime less for the in-stadium fans and unclutter some of the commercial time for those watching on television.
More research will be unveiled to explain how and why the younger generation – Generation Z – sometimes prefer watching an NFL game on a five-inch telephone screen than a 60-inch, high-definition television monitor. The research says that 69 percent of fans have experienced the game on a mobile device.
"I think the league every year pushes us to be the best, to continue to change, to be better every year," Smolenski said. "Whether that is adjustments in the rules, adjustment to the pace of the game, which are some of the things they are considering this year, all of that is done to make the game better, more enjoyable and more exciting for the fans of all ages from millennials to older generations of fans."
Smolenski and the Eagles are proud to call Philadelphia home and to have a fan base that is ardent and true. The challenges that Smolenski works with on daily basis to enhance the experience for Eagles fans is not quite the same as the macro-view the league takes.
"I think the league is looking out for all 32 teams, while at the team level, while you are mindful of that, you're really focused on your market, your team, your fans," Smolenski said. "Our goal is to do what is best for the Eagles and our fans. Based on the feedback we receive, our fans are very excited about what's developed over the past 12 to 15 months. I think they are excited for what is ahead.
"I know I can't wait for the schedule to come out (estimated to be the second full week of April, based on the history of schedule releases) and then to experience the NFL Draft in Philadelphia. It's all a very exciting time right now."
Smolenski attends the Owners Sessions Monday through Wednesday where the conversations are wide ranging and extremely vital to the game – football operations, rules committees, you name it. A lot is going to happen as the NFL shapes the game for 2017 and far, far beyond.
What does it all mean for the fans? The goal from the NFL is to have 25 percent fewer commercials for each game for fans watching on television, with a 30-percent reduction on the in-game, nothing-to-do-with-the-action messaging. The league hopes it can reduce the on-field downtime for those watching in the stadium by up to five minutes per game.
These are aggressive goals. This is a bold vision. The NFL wants to make the game better and better and better for the fans, expand the reach, and grow the brand.
For Smolenski, spending four days here is always a valuable experience.
"I'm learning every day on my job and certainly that's the case here," he said. "I really enjoy it. We're all working to make it a better product for the fans, both at the league level and from a team perspective. That's the question I ask every day: How can we make this better for the fans?"