February 22, 2024

Leading Business

Business in Evolution

How the NFL Makes Money

7 min read

The National Football League (NFL) is one of the most successful sports leagues in the world. 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.

The NFL earns the lion’s share of its money with TV deals. Other revenue streams include ticket sales, merchandising and licensing rights, and corporate sponsorships. Because of its private status, the NFL does not share its finances with the public. However, it was estimated in 2023 to have made about $12 billion in the previous season.

Key Takeaways

  • The National Football League (NFL) is one of the most successful sports leagues in the world.
  • Only one NFL team is run as a nonprofit corporation: the Green Bay Packers. The rest are privately owned.
  • The league gave up its tax-exempt status in 2015.
  • NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has targeted $25 billion in revenue by 2027.
  • TV deals are the main source of revenue for the NFL, but licensing is also lucrative.

The NFL’s 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 among the 32 teams regardless of individual performance. In the NFL’s most recent season, each team received $374.4 million.

Local revenue—which consists of ticket sales, concessions, and local corporate sponsors—is earned (and kept) by the teams themselves. In FY 2023, for example, the Packers reported $235.9 million in local revenue.

Big revenues are needed to help cover the high costs of running a professional football team. In 2022-2023, the Packers spent $541.6 million on operating expenses. A large chunk went to pay players ($294.2 million), with the rest allocated to stadium upkeep, marketing, and team and administrative costs.

Here is where the league’s money comes from:

Massive TV and Streaming Deals

Football is, hands down, the most-viewed sport in the United States, with the Super Bowls being among the highest-rated TV broadcasts in U.S. history.

During the season, NFL games are broadcast live in the United States on Mondays, Thursdays, and Sundays. These games are consistently among the most popular shows on TV. Therefore, media companies have shelled out big bucks for the rights to broadcast them.

The NFL has TV deals in place with Amazon, CBS, ESPN/ABC, Fox, and NBC running through the 2033 season. People familiar with these deals, have said that they could be worth more than $100 billion. Under the terms of the deals, the four TV broadcast networks will annually rotate rights to the Super Bowl, while Amazon will get to exclusively stream “Thursday Night Football.”

In addition, in December 2022, the NFL announced a multi-year agreement with Google (GOOG), granting YouTube TV and YouTube Primetime Channels the right to exclusively distribute a package called “NFL Sunday Ticket” to consumers in the United States starting with the 2023 NFL season. NFL Sunday Ticket allows viewers to watch regular season games that are not carried by local broadcasters in their area. The Wall Street Journal estimated that the deal would bring the NFL another $2 billion in annual revenue.

Merchandising and Licensing Deals

Although the majority of its national revenue comes from those monster TV deals, the NFL also makes money through its NFL Properties LLC and NFL International LLC divisions, which handle licensing for both the league and its individual teams.

As the NFL explains to prospective licensees, the two divisions represent “the National Football League and its member professional football clubs for the licensing of their trademarks and logos (the “NFL Marks”). The NFL Marks include, among others, the NFL shield, the words SUPER BOWL and PRO BOWL, the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl logos, and the team names, nicknames, colors, symbols, emblems, helmet designs and uniform designs.”

By one estimate, licensing deals bring in another $3 billion a year.

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, with the average NFL ticket estimated to cost about $151. This doesn’t leave much opportunity for growth.

The one thing teams can do is renovate their stadiums to add more seats and concession stands. Such renovations are costly and disruptive but usually pay off—especially because they are often heavily subsidized by local taxpayers.

Similar to ticket sales, concessions are peanuts compared to TV deals. Concessions contribute relatively small amounts to the average NFL team’s revenue, but, as with movie theaters, the margins on selling food and drinks at games are extremely high.

Corporate Sponsors

Corporations often like to be associated with major sports franchises and are willing to pay for the privilege.

According to Sports Business Journal, the NFL started the 2023 season with 37 league-level sponsors, including Best Buy, Campbell Soup, FedEx, Frito-Lay, Marriott, Rocket Mortgage, Subway, and Visa.

The most coveted sponsorships are naming rights to NFL stadiums. In January 2024, for example, Levi Strauss & Co. and the San Francisco 49ers announced a $170 million deal to keep the jeans’ maker’s name on the team’s stadium through the 2043 NFL season.

Future Plans and Growth Areas

TV and Streaming

While the ways people consume entertainment continue to evolve, the NFL has the advantage of offering a product that works across many different channels. In addition, its long-term contracts with television broadcasters and streaming services assure it of substantial revenue well into the future.

Gambling

In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to let the states decide whether or not to legalize gambling on sports. Many states have since taken up that option, mindful of the big tax revenues that it could generate. Today sports betting is legal in 38 states.

According to a 2023 Washington Post report, the NFL currently takes in $132 million in gambling-related sponsorships. Those sponsors include the sports betting providers Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings, and FanDuel.

That could just be the beginning. The American Gaming Association predicted in 2018 that legalized betting could be worth over $2.3 billion a year to the NFL—due in large part to increased TV viewership (and resulting advertising revenues) driven by fans with a financial stake in the games’ outcomes.

Key Challenges

Reliance on Pricey Star Power

To keep fans coming back, the NFL relies on star athletes who are not easily or inexpensively replaced. According to the NFL, the top five players for 2023, as chosen by their fellow players, were Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs), Justin Jefferson (Minnesota Vikings), Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia Eagles), Nick Bosa (San Francisco 49ers), and Travis Kelce (Kansas City Chiefs).

Ongoing Scandals

The reputation of the NFL has come under fire in recent years from multiple directions.

The league has been accused of not only overlooking the risk of players sustaining serious brain injuries but also of discriminating against players based on race in the financial settlements it offered.

The league shrugged off claims that its players engaged in domestic abuse and blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2019 for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism.

An email scandal erupted in 2020 alleging systemic sexual harassment and verbal abuse and led to resignations and investigations. And while the NFL has welcomed sports betting as a new revenue stream, it faces potential damage to its reputation if players, who are not allowed to bet, are caught gambling; in 2023, it suspended at least nine players based on such accusations.

In 2015, the NFL gave up its tax-exempt status, held since 1942.

Who Owns the National Football League (NFL)?

No one individual owns the National Football League (NFL). 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, streaming, and marketing deals. The global Covid-19 pandemic put a damper on the league’s bottom line, but it has since rebounded.

What NFL Team Is Worth the Most Money?

The team worth the most money in the NFL is the Dallas Cowboys, with an estimated value of $9.2 billion.

What NFL Team Is Worth the Least Money?

The Cincinnati Bengals is believed to have the least value of any NFL team, but even it is worth an estimated $3.5 billion.

The Bottom Line

Although the NFL is a private entity and not obligated to disclose how much it makes, there is plenty of evidence that it generates an enormous amount of money. In 2010, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell set an annual revenue target for the league of $25 billion by 2027. It is currently about halfway there.

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