How The NFL Makes Money

TV is the NFL's golden goose, but gambling and streaming show potential.

The NFL is the most successful American sports league in history. For all the talk of North America’s Big Three sports (or Big Four for hockey fans), the reality is that there’s pro football, and then there’s everything else. 

In 2015 the NFL gave up the tax-exempt status it had held since 1947 in response to mounting criticism for its quickly growing revenue. The league now exists as a trade association made up of and financed by its 32 member teams. Thirty-one of these teams are owned individually, with the Green Bay Packers retaining its non-profit status.

The NFL earns the lion’s share of its money with TV deals. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 50% of the league’s $15 billion annual revenue comes from TV deals. Other revenue streams include ticket sales, merchandising, and licensing rights, and corporate sponsorships.

Despite steadily declining viewership, controversies about player concussions and the national anthem, along with the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL is making more money than ever. But because of its private status, it is impossible to know exactly how much the NFL makes. The league made an estimated $15.26 billion during the 2019 season, an increase from the $14.48 billion it reportedly made the year before. And the league is showing no intentions of slowing down. Commissioner Roger Goodell targeted $25 billion in revenue by 2027, or 6% annual growth.

Key Takeaways

  • The NFL is one of the most successful sports leagues in the United States.
  • The league gave up its tax-exempt status in 2015.
  • Commissioner Roger Goodell has targeted $25 billion in revenue by 2027.
  • TV deals make up over half of the NFL’s revenue.
  • The Green Bay Packers is the only NFL team that is run as a nonprofit corporation.

The Business Model

The NFL groups its revenue streams into two categories: “national revenue” and “local revenue.” 

National revenue consists of TV deals along with merchandising and licensing contracts, which are negotiated at the national level by the league itself. This money is then divided evenly between the 32 teams regardless of individual performance. The NFL earned over $9.5 billion in national revenue in 2020, meaning each team received about $296 million in national revenue from the league.

Local revenue, which consists of ticket sales, concessions, and corporate sponsors, is earned by the teams themselves. In 2020, the Packers earned $211 million in local revenue, 41% of their total revenue that year, which was $507 million.

However, the costs of running a professional football team are high. In 2020, the Packers spent $437 million on expenses, out of which about $227 million went to players, while the remaining went to stadium upkeep, marketing, and team and administrative costs. This leaves the team an operating income of about $34.9 million. According to Forbes, the Dallas Cowboys are the NFL’s richest team, with $980 million in revenue and an operating income of $425 million in 2020.

This is the basic structure of the NFL’s business. Here’s how it breaks down.

Massive TV deals

Football is, hands down, the most-viewed sport in the U.S. Nineteen of the 20 most-viewed TV broadcasts in U.S. history are Superbowls of various years. In season, NFL games are broadcast live in the USA on Mondays, Thursdays, and Sundays. These games are consistently the highest-rated shows on TV, so media companies have shelled out big bucks for the rights to broadcast them.

The NFL currently has TV deals with CBS, NBC (owned by Comcast), Fox, and ESPN (owned by Disney/Hearst). In contracts that were finalized in 2011, CBS, NBC, and Fox committed to pay the NFL a total of $39.6 billion between the 2014 and 2022 seasons. The three broadcasters share rights to "Sunday Night Football,” as well as annually rotating rights to the Super Bowl. Fees paid by these networks are set to rise about 7% annually, meaning they will each be paying the NFL about $3.1 billion per year by 2022.

In the same year, ESPN signed a deal to pay the NFL $15.2 billion through 2021 for the rights to “Monday Night Football.”

In 2018, Fox signed an additional deal for $3.3 billion for exclusive rights to “Thursday Night Football,” outbidding NBC and CBS.

Merchandising and Licensing Deals

Although the majority of its national revenue comes from its monster TV deals, the NFL also makes money by selling companies the rights to sell items that represent the NFL. For instance, the NFL, in partnership with Nike, signed a 10-year licensing deal with online sports-retailer Fanatics in 2018. This deal makes Fanatics the exclusive manufacturer of all adult-sized, Nike-branded merchandise sold through the NFL’s online store. 

The value of this deal went undisclosed, but in all likelihood, it’s pennies compared to the NFL’s TV deals. According to Navigate Research, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in the evaluation of sports and entertainment marketing investments, only about 10% of the NFL’s yearly revenue comes from these deals.

Ticket Sales and Concessions

Although ticket sales constitute an important revenue stream for individual NFL teams, they are nonetheless relatively small compared to quickly growing revenue from TV deals (you’re probably noticing a pattern here).

On average, NFL stadiums seat about 70,000 people, and games usually sell out. This doesn’t leave much opportunity for growth. The average ticket price has increased by about 7% annually since the turn of the century. The average price for an NFL ticket cost about $30 in 2000 and increased to about $151 in 2020, but the added revenue from these increases are negligible when compared to revenue growth from TV.

The one thing teams can do is choose to renovate their stadiums to add more seats and concession stands. Such renovations are costly and disruptive but usually pay off. Since 2010, the Packers spent more than $370 million gradually updating its stadium, Lambeau Field, including adding more seats. Since then, their yearly ticket revenue jumped from $48 million to $71 million.

NFL teams can also use their stadiums to host non-football events, like concerts, but opportunities for revenue growth from these events have the same limitations.

An NFL team earned about $7 million, on average, in ticket sales from a single stadium event in 2016. About 55% of that revenue is used to pay athletes or musicians. 10% goes to general stadium administration, 5% goes to the team’s coaching staff, 5% is paid in taxes, and the remaining 8% is profit.

Like ticket sales, concessions are peanuts compared to TV deals. Concessions contribute only about $3 to $5 million to the average NFL team’s revenue, but the margins on selling food at games are extremely high. Beer and soda sold at stadiums have margins of over 90%.

Only 8%

The average NFL team's profit margin of ticket sales.

Corporate Sponsors

Corporate sponsors pay NFL teams to display their logos on players’ uniforms, TV transitions, merchandise, etc. In 2018, the NFL pulled in over $1.3 billion in sponsorships. The most coveted sponsorships are naming rights to NFL stadiums. According to the New York Times, the naming rights to Met Life Stadium in New York and the AT&T Stadium in Dallas are both worth $19 million a year.

Future Plans

TV Growth

Contrary to some claims, TV isn’t dying, at least not when it comes to football. The value of the NFL’s TV deals has skyrocketed in the last few decades; by all accounts, it will likely continue to do so. As a result, the NFL’s biggest focus for reaching its aspirational $25 billion in revenue by 2025 is continuing to secure bigger and bigger TV deals.

Streaming

Although TV is still king when it comes to watching football, streaming is on the rise. In 2017, Verizon signed a new $2.5 billion deal with the NFL for five years of streaming rights. This is twice the size of the deal Verizon had with the NFL before. In April of 2018, Amazon signed a comparatively small deal of $130 million for two years of streaming rights. If the growth of TV deals in the last few decades are any indication, these deals will also continue to grow rapidly over the coming decades.

Gambling

Although the NFL has always officially been against sports gambling, that is likely to change soon. In May 2018, the Supreme Court decided to let states determine whether or not to legalize sports gambling. As of December 2020, 20 states have already fully legalized the practice, while seven more have passed bills to do so.

To capitalize on this, the NFL could set up betting parlors in stadiums, partner with established casinos, set up online sports gambling portals, among others. The possibilities are vast and there is no way the growth-obsessed NFL won’t explore as many as it can.

$150 Billion Annually

Estimated value of American sports gambling.

Key Challenges

COVID-19 Pandemic

The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a big impact on businesses around the world, and the NFL is no exception. Special protocols were put in place to prevent the spread of the virus and to keep players, coaches, and NFL employees safe. This includes the enforcement of masks, regular testing, and social distancing. The league also began limiting the number of people allowed in and around the field on game days, including fans.

This is putting a dent into the league's bottom line. The Wall Street Journal estimated that the league could lose as much as $4 billion in revenue because of the pandemic. But according to a report from Bloomberg, this could simply be a minor, temporary setback, as sports fees continue to surge.

Reliance on Star Power

The NFL relies on its star athletes to keep fans coming back. According to the NFL, the top five stars for 2020 were Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens), Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks), Aaron Donald (Los Angeles Rams), Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs), and Michael Thomas (New Orleans Saints).

But when the league's biggest stars begin to fade, so do TV ratings. This was the case in 2016, 2017, and 2018, when ratings fell slightly for three consecutive years. In 2017, for instance, many of the league’s most popular players were injured—J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Rob Gronkowski—stuck with bad teams—Russell Wilson, Von Miller, Eli Manning—or both, like Odell Beckham Jr.

This same logic also applies to popular teams. When few popular teams make the playoffs, fewer fans watch. According to the research firm MoffetNathanson, only half of the 10 most popular teams made it to the postseason in 2017. This could be connected to the 20% drop in viewership that year.

Political Controversy

As most Americans probably already know, former President Donald Trump had issues with the NFL and has made his distaste very clear. He repeatedly admonished the NFL in 2017 and 2018 for not cracking down hard enough on players for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Many of his supporters boycotted the league as a result. However, it remains to be seen whether this political entanglement will last.

NFL Revenue FAQs

Who Owns the NFL?

No one individual owns the National Football League. It is, instead, a trade association made up of individual franchises or teams. Thirty-one of these teams are owned individually while only one—the Green Bay Packers—is owned by shareholders collectively as a nonprofit.

Is the NFL Losing Money?

The NFL is making money on an overall basis, primarily from lucrative television and marketing deals. The global COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on the league's bottom line, but some experts say that this is only a temporary problem.

What NFL Team Is Worth the Smallest Amount of Money?

According to Forbes, the Cincinnati Bengals are worth the smallest amount of money among all 32 NFL teams. The team earned $60 million in operating profit for the 2020 season with revenue coming in at $397 million.

What NFL Team Is Worth the Most Money?

The Dallas Cowboys is worth the most money in the NFL. The team brought in revenue of about $980 million, earning about $425 million in operating profit for the 2020 season, according to Forbes.

The Bottom Line

The NFL is one of the most successful sports leagues in the U.S. Although it is a private entity, which means it isn't obligated to release how much it makes, there is plenty of evidence of the enormous revenue it generates. Much of the league's money comes from TV and marketing deals. But low viewership and the global COVID-19 pandemic is putting a dent into its bottom line. Although some experts say these are temporary hiccups, only time will tell whether the NFL will stay on track with its forecasts for large profits.

Article Sources

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