PIVOT NEWSROOM

Pivot Factory Podcast - NFL Evolution + Disruption with Michael Lombardi

Jul 24, 2019 6:43:04 PM / by Pivot Factory

It feels like only a few short months ago that the New England Patriots won yet another Super Bowl—its sixth title in the franchise’s history, all accumulated this century. 

Don’t look now, but we’re on the cusp of another NFL season. To commemorate this American pseudo-holiday, we invited NFL insider and former front office executive Michael Lombardi on the podcast.

Pivot Factory CEO and Founder Michael Leadbetter and Lombardi examine the sport’s evolution throughout the last three decades, and the disruptive forces the NFL must confront.

Before we get there, though, let’s briefly review the NFL’s immense popularity—and equally staggering wealth:

  • Forbes estimates the average NFL team is worth $2.57 billion, with the Dallas Cowboys alone valued at $5 billion. 
  • Broadcasting contracts are a big reason why. Deals with each network—CBS, Fox, NBC, and ESPN, for example—are individually worth millions. To put it in perspective, Fox is paying the NFL $3.3 billion over five years to broadcast Thursday Night Football. That agreement is even more jarring when you consider the deal only covers 11 Thursday games per season on top of the network's preexisting Sunday package—which it negotiated separately. 
  • For the sake of comparison, ESPN is paying $1.9 billion annually through 2021 for rights to Monday Night Football (the deal was consummated in 2011). 

Broadcasting fees account for only a piece of the overall pie that makes the NFL—and its owners—astronomically wealthy. There are ticket sales, merchandising, ad revenue, and so much else padding the pockets of the league’s denizens. 

So how popular is the NFL? Consider this: Of the top 100 rated programs in 2018, 64 were NFL games

As with any major conglomerate, there’s always concern of the other shoe dropping, however, thus one of the multiple reasons why we wanted to get Lombardi’s take on the current state of the NFL. 

Lombardi has been both a front office executive and media analyst since the mid-'80s. He’s worked for the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders. He also served as an assistant to the coaching staff of the New England Patriots between 2014 and 2016. Lombardi now serves as NFL insider for the sports news startup The Athletic. He's also the author of "Gridiron Genius," published last year.

Here are a few takeaways from the podcast, which you can listen to in full through our site or on your preferred podcast app. 

coaches league

When Lombardi first got into the league, coaches and staffers were watching films on 16mm tape. Technological advances have transformed the art of teaching, and made in-game adjustments that much easier. Watch any NFL game now, and you’ll notice assistant coaches and players huddled around tablets analyzing previous plays and schemes, probing for fatal flaws. Lombardi believes it has all been for the betterment of the game. 

“In the Sixties, when Johnny Unitas played quarterback, he controlled the game based on what he wanted to do,” Lombardi tells Leadbetter. “Now, with all the digital recordings and the ability to watch what's going on on the field...coaches can make in-game adjustments, which makes the game much better.”

The infusion of digital tech—not even counting recent sports innovations—has transformed everything about how the game is played. Very rarely do we see two-back offenses, historically the centerpiece of NFL offenses. That’s largely the result of coaches analyzing game situations and challenging the depths of what can be accomplished on the gridiron, adds Lombardi. Now, vertical passing is king.

“Now teams throw the ball, there's more points scored, teams can play better defense than in the past, even though the rules have let up, I think it's become a lot easier for them to put the innovation in it and be able to teach the players how to play the game,” he notes. 

DISRUPTION IN FOOTBALL

Lombardi has an interesting perspective on disruption. He sees some of the most pressing issues arising out of a generational gap among players,  coaches, and teammates, as well. A guy like Tom Brady has outlived most NFL players his age. Brady, who turns 42 in August, is still playing at optimal levels, but because he came into the league nearly two decades ago, he’s now contending with a new generation of athletes. 

“You got to spend time teaching football, teaching the essence of the game to a generation that only watches highlights.” 

“The coaches today are, you know, 40 years old, some of them are young in their thirties,” says Lombardi. “You're dealing with trying to teach millennials, you’re teaching...a generation that you perhaps don't know much about. So you've got to go back and go and spend some time understanding what they're about.

“How do we push their buttons?” he adds. “Tom Brady is 42 years old. He's playing with kids that are 21 years old, he could be their father. The Patriots spent time teaching Tom Brady what he was faced with, what he was dealing with. That disruption, when you're building a team, can really destroy a team.” 

The former executive also illustrates how ESPN has demonstrably changed sports viewing habits, and the impact that has had on a younger generation of athletes. 

In effect, up until relatively recently, sports fans and aspirational football players would watch entire games on TV and study plays, and the styles of individual players. Games haven’t only been condensed into highlights for TV purposes, but into significantly shorter clips, as viewing habits have evolved. 

“Today, cell phones, Instagram, all the things that are going on, how do you get players to focus and understand how the game should be played?” says Lombardi. “You got to spend time teaching football, teaching the essence of the game to a generation that only watches highlights.” 

CULTURE...AND THOSE DARN PATRIOTS

By now, fans of teams other than the Patriots have had their fill of New England’s dynasty. Of course, there’s a reason the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady tandem has been so dominant despite so much roster turnover throughout the years. Lombardi, who worked for Belichick, says the franchise’s success is directly linked to the type of culture the future Hall of Fame coach has instilled since walking into the building in January 2000. 

The way Lombardi describes it, the Patriot model could transcend football and benefit all types of organizations—from Main Street brick-and-mortar shops to Wall Street behemoths.  

“Look, there's no sign in the Patriots [facility] when you walk in the office that says, 'We're going to win a world championship this year.' That doesn't exist," he says. "The Super Bowl trophies are up in the owner's office, not down where a player sees it. Belichick’s culture is really four things: Do your job, be attentive, put the team first, and speak for yourself.

“Those are the four areas he focuses on. Now do your job...I think we have this idea in society and organizations today that we're going to spend so much time talking about, you know, letting people have freedom within their job. Well, that's great, but then no one knows what their job really is,” he continues. “And when they're being evaluated or being judged, they can't really tell if they're doing a good job or not, because there's no boundaries to what they do. Belichick's very clear. Do your job, understand what your job is. And he explains it. And that allows the culture to compound itself.” 

Now that's advice that could seemingly help any business struggling with disruption or how to innovate.


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The Pivot Factory Podcast is a Morey Creative Studios production.

The Pivot Factory Podcast is hosted by Michael Leadbetter, and engineered and produced by Michael Conforti, Rashed Mian and Christopher Twarowski. Jed Morey is the executive producer.