In the Communist Manifesto, Marx described the periodic crisis of capitalism in terms of “the enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces.” Marx argued that the productive forces unleashed by capitalism eventually get out of hand and the result is excess, thus collapsing the value of the means of production. The capital classes remedy this by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces, the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of existing markets.
Marx gets blamed for the 100 million or so murders committed in his name, but he did make a few insightful observations. For instance, the nature of business to ruthlessly exploit existing markets in pursuit of growth, even when it becomes self-defeating, is still true today. Similarly, business will bankrupt itself in pursuit of new markets, all in the name of growth. Much of what plagues us these days is the result of global business desperately searching for a new market to exploit. It is also at the heart of what is ailing the NFL.
A lot of people are blaming the idiotic and offensive antics of the players for the sudden drop in ratings. Football players have short careers and most end up broke soon after leaving the game, but most men envy them anyway. Boys grow up wanting to be a sports star and that admiration carries over into adulthood, long after we know the reality of sport. Colin Kaepernick disrespecting the fans and the country by kneeling during the anthem grates on people. Normal people think he is an ungrateful prick.
That may be part of the problem the NFL is facing, but my sense is the impact is trivial. Maybe it is the last straw for some people, but if you are a sports fan, you are willing to overlook the antics of the meat heads wearing your team’s colors. The individual players are not all that important to the drama. The point of professional sport is to simulate the tribal warfare for which all of us were born. Instead of defeating the neighboring tribe’s men and stealing their women, we watch our team beat their team at a ball game.
The real issue that is plaguing the NFL is they have run out of ways to separate their customers from their money. In fact, they ran out of sensible ways to do that a long time ago. That’s why they have started holding games in foreign countries. They think they can maybe find new customers to exploit. The games they hold in London, for example, cost the league millions, but they hope that Brits will get hooked on the narcotic of the NFL and cough up millions for the product. So far, no good.
As Marx observed, they are also ruthlessly trying to exploit their existing market. Go to an NFL game and you come away feeling like you have just been mugged. It’s not the absurd prices for everything. They constantly bombard the fan with marketing, because they expect the fan to commit his life to the corporate entity known as his team. Go to a Dallas Cowboy game, for example, and you are treated to a long pre-game ceremony about how you are not just a fan, you are soldier in the army of the Dallas Cowboys.
Of course, most people consume their sports via the television and that’s where you see the ravenous appetite of the NFL as they ruthlessly exploit their market. It used to be that the NFL games were played at one o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Now, there are games all day on Sunday. There’s a game on Sunday night and Monday night. Now we have a game on Thursday night. If that is not enough, there’s the NFL package for your phone, tablet and whatever else you use to consume media.
The games are now more advertising than games. As the linked article points out, the games themselves are only about 10-15 minutes of action. The rest of the presentation is fluff and most of that is advertising. There’s a play and then the refs have to hold a meeting about it. That means a break to sell product for three or four minutes. They get back to the game for a few plays and then it is time to have a break for more commercials. It’s why the Red Zone Channel is so popular. It has no ads.
The NFL is in many ways emblematic of the modern credit economy. Rich guys buy the teams on borrowed money at artificially low interest rates. They don’t really care that much about the cash flow, like a normal business. Their game is to inflate the value of the franchise over the duration of their investment. To do that means maximizing the “brand” and that costs money, which is why they load up their product with ads to the point where it is more ads than product. The NFL is a big bust out.
What’s happening to the NFL is their endless pursuit of growth has put the live product out of reach for most people. The TV version is exhausting the viewers with marketing and advertising. In an effort to fully exploit its market, it is destroying the desirability of the product. This is not exactly as Marx imagined the crisis of capitalism, but it is a good lesson on the fantasy of endless growth. The whole point of the NFL as a business is to get bigger and that cannot go on forever.
This does not mean the NFL is about to go out of business, but it serves as a useful lesson about the limits of the asset model. The modern credit economy is based on the idea that asset values can grow forever, therefore the credit base can grow forever. The NFL is based on the same premise. In both cases, the effort to keep the fantasy alive in the face of objective reality, is doing more harm than good. The question is how long does it take the people in charge to figure it out.