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 meeting here Wednesday, Jones and several of his allies were poised to continue complaining about the deal, Goodell’s leadership and a league office they believe is filled with too many meddlesome executives.
Jones added an item to Wednesday’s agenda that calls for a six-month moratorium on negotiations, according to ESPN. The contract cannot be undone without penalties, but Jones’s effort appears designed to give him a platform to continue speaking out on the issue.
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.
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’s 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 a litany of law suits 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.
Still, 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 nearly every franchise is worth at least $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 also 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 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.
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.