In his 15th year as the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell presides over the opening of the 2021 season Thursday night when the Steelers play the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game.
On Wednesday he appeared on a virtual fan forum held for Bengals Season Ticket Holders, Suite Holders and sponsors moderated by Bengals play-by-play man Dan Hoard. The wide-ranging discussion touched on a bevy of topics, from Goodell's almost lifelong goal of becoming NFL commissioner, to the league missing no games last season during the pandemic, to his most memorable draft day hugs. (345-pound Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton picking him up twice in 2015 tops the list.)
Top on Goodell's 2021 list of priorities after a season played in empty stadiums is fan engagement. Some excerpts and Bengals memories:
On fans embracing parity as critical to the NFL's success and the hopes of the 2021 Bengals:
I think they do believe that and with good reason. History shows that. We have teams that go from last to first and, unfortunately, go from first to last. But that's the competitiveness of the NFL today. I believe those fortunes change very quickly and we've seen that over the last several years. That's the face of the NFL. To me, we do want to give hope to every one of our fans. We have that in the draft, the schedule release and when the players get back on the field where teams' interest and frankly, enthusiasm is renewed.
I saw that at the Jets camp last week. I saw it in Arizona (Tuesday). And I believe that is true with the Cincinnati Bengals. I have very many friends and business partners in Cincinnati. The No. 1 thing I hear is the optimism, the hope and, frankly, the inspiration that they all feel that the Bengals are going to be a playoff team heading into the Super Bowl this year. That's great.
On the possibility of Cincinnati hosting the NFL Draft:
We look at the draft as a way to give people who may not be in a Super Bowl city for whatever reason … to be able to host an NFL event… It may not have capacity for hotel rooms or other facilities or weather or some other issue … Those are the markets we want to go to ultimately. Cincinnati is in that category from our standpoint, just like Cleveland last year.
I think it's really important to share that with the fans. It's interesting. We have as much interest, in some ways, of hosting the draft as we do the Super Bowl now. We are going to Las Vegas next year, then to Kansas City. We're looking to award another one next fall. At least another city. Maybe two. The reality is we're going out to probably a five-year cycle. The planning requires that, there are so many people that are going to see the draft. I'm convinced that Las Vegas will probably beat our record that we had in Nashville with about 600,000 fans. I'd love to see Cincinnati get in line and apply for that and be awarded by our ownership and beat that record.
On his favorite Bengals memory as commissioner:
Before I was commissioner, I had to be there frequently for playoff games. And l loved going to Cincinnati because those are real football fans. Ohio is the birthplace of pro football. They have some of the greatest fans in the world and most sophisticated and passionate fans. The game I remember the most, I think, was the Jets playoff game. (Jan. 9, 2010.) We had a fan forum somewhat similar to this, but it was in the parking lots before the game. To me, it was just a whole day experience, which was so much fun for me. I just remember being in the parking lot with the fans. You just heard the enthusiasm and the excitement the fans had.
What are you most looking forward to in 2021?
I think the return of the fans …. We see from our clubs the excitement of our fans. We're over 92 percent renewal rate, which is much higher than it's been in several years. I think the fans are anxious to get back. I think that experience is No. 1 in my book. Two, I'm looking forward to some of the changes we had in the offseason. That includes the expansion of the regular season (from 16) to 17 games. I think that's going to be a very positive change for our fans and our partners. I think the reduction of the preseason (from four to three games) the same.
Just a year ago we expanded our playoffs so that we were able to have more competition to get into the postseason. I think that brought more fans into later season games, which made for a lot of fun. And then we're working a lot to engage more with our fans … and find other ways of getting closer to their clubs and game.
I think on a variety of fronts this is set up to be a great season. We're obviously still dealing with COVID. That's a daily task for us. We're going to do it with the safety in mind for all our of our personnel, including our fans, and making sure that it is safe for our fans to be in our stadiums.
How has the 17-game schedule and three preseason games been received?
Really positively. (The fans) were part of our thinking as we addressed this. What I always heard specifically is the quality of the preseason games compared to the regular season games. Fans were very strong that you have to do it safely. It's worth talking about to say it really took us ten years to get to this place.
What really drove the process was showing we could make the game safer over 10 years and actually play a 17th regular-season game and not have a negative impact on the safety of our players. I'm confident that we were able to have incredible data that we've been keeping over the last ten years with respect to injuries. We've changed the way we've practiced, the way we've trained at training camp, the way we train in the offseason.
The regular-season games are safer than preseason games from an injury standpoint. We think we can do this safely … We were able to work that out in the context of the 10-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement and we were able to negotiate that in the context of our media agreements. I think it's going to improve the quality of what we do … I can't wait. More football is good for me, but I think it's going to be a great balance. To shift away from things that weren't the highest quality to something that really is high quality.
On the NFL's new 10-year TV deal including some games being streamed:
Its's important because the fundamental approach we take to our media arrangements is how we reach the broadest possible audience. Today network television is still that. But clearly that dynamic is being challenged and it's not the first time network television has been challenged.
But it still gives us our biggest platform and we wanted to maintain that position but then also go to some of the new opportunities in digital and streaming and be able to take advantage of people who aren't necessarily on the network television platform anymore and want to watch a game on their streaming device. So Amazon, I think, is going to be a really big addition for us. But every one of our network partners is also finding streaming services. So we were able to strike agreements with them to be able to put it on multiple platforms even with our network partners. I think that type of reach and that kind of ability to engage with our fans on multiple platforms is exactly what we need to do for our fans moving forward and it give us that stability going forward to manage our business, manage the game. But frankly, more importantly, ensure that we're doing the best possible way to reach our fans.