Jerry, Dak and the filthy rich future of the NFL

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Not long after the lightning strike of Dak Prescott’s massive four-year, $160 million contract with the Dallas Cowboys flashed across the NFL on Monday, the lingering buzz turned to team owner and league powerbroker Jerry Jones.

It wasn’t the usual look-at-what-Jerry-just-did moment. Instead, this was a reading of the tea leaves when it came to the NFL’s bottom line.

After all, Dallas didn’t just cut a massive $40 million per season deal with its franchise quarterback — it caved to a contract structure that will almost guarantee the team will be back at the negotiating table at least two more times during Prescott’s prime years. That’s the kind of move that will put Prescott in line for a landslide of money over the next decade, not to mention drive an adrenaline shot into an already-skyrocketing pay scale for quarterbacks across the league. Jones didn’t just change the Cowboys’ future with Prescott. He changed the future of quarterback money across the NFL. All of which prompted deeper questions that ping-ponged around the league Monday night.

With the NFL on the verge of its next television rights package, did Jerry wave a white flag in the Prescott negotiations because he knows where the league’s revenues are going? Could the reported $100 billion in television rights packages be a reality? Are the NFL’s forecasts about betting-related revenues that promising? And could this be a sign of a long-anticipated partnership between the league and “The Big A”?

“There goes [Jerry’s] Amazon money,” one NFL general manager said half-jokingly late Monday night, after hearing Prescott’s overall contract numbers.

Broadcasting rights have helped lift the NFL revenue's into the stratosphere. That isn't expected to change this decade.  (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Broadcasting rights have helped lift the NFL revenue’s into the stratosphere. That isn’t expected to change this decade. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Longtime NFL agent David Canter put a finer point on it, responding to a tweet about Prescott now being positioned to eventually be one of the highest-earning players in league history.

“Strong point here is what does Jerry know about the TV deals and [money] coming. He’s obviously intimately involved and this deal reflects his knowledge and how big the new TV [money] will be,” Canter tweeted.

Canter wasn’t alone. Multiple agents shared similar sentiments, most revolving around the belief that the NFL is putting the finishing touches on its TV rights deals and also been able to draw up some new revenue models that reflect ancillary income related to the slowly loosening state regulations involving the betting industry. The widely held belief among many league and union insiders is that the NFL’s next wave of television deals and new revenue streams relating to gaming will propel the NFL beyond the $25 billion per year revenue goal that commissioner Roger Goodell laid out in 2010.

Of course, the pandemic threw a hitch in Goodell’s plans, which had already driven the NFL’s total revenue to more than $15 billion by 2019 and within striking distance of the commissioner’s $25 billion goal by the end of 2027. While it’s expected the NFL will see a significant hit to that gross revenue figure due to the pandemic, there is a monumental saving grace in the landscape that even Goodell couldn’t have predicted more than 10 years ago.

It’s Amazon, the $1.5 trillion white whale that has made NFL team owners swoon whenever they spend time thinking about potential rights partnerships over the next decade.

While some have been fretting about the financial hits taken by the networks that made the NFL so rich in past television rights deals, there has been a ribbon of optimism inside the league office about the rise of Amazon as a major content player. And in a pandemic year when the NFL was taking its worst bottom line hit in history, Amazon was busy rising to unprecedented heights. The monolithic online retailer became the most valuable company on the planet. It’s also a 500-pound gorilla in the entertainment landscape that could purchase any major network of its choosing at any time.

All of this makes Amazon the company that the NFL most wants to deepen its relationship with. And there’s no better way to do that than by selling off a significant chunk of the broadcast rights to America’s most popular and lucrative sport.

How big will Amazon go in its initial foray into NFL broadcasting rights, and how quickly will it move for more expansive exclusivity over the next decade? As it stands, it’s believed that Amazon is vying for sole ownership of the league’s “Thursday Night Football” package by 2023, which it would then roll out as part of its Prime subscription service. If that package was a positive experience for Amazon, it could translate into the company eventually aiming for even bigger chunks of the NFL landscape to anchor future development of its entertainment content.

If Amazon lands the rights to “Thursday Night Football” and it’s a lucrative experience, it’s expected that the next target down the line will likely be the Sunday and Monday night franchises — and maybe even a totality of carrying as much of the NFL rights that Amazon can get its hands on.

For competing networks that are already holding the league’s broadcasting rights (ESPN, NBC, Fox and CBS), the implicit message is simple: If you want to keep carrying the NFL’s product, there is a brand new bully on the block to deal with in the coming years. And the best way to deal with that bully is to box it out from as much content as possible. Everyone better go to the table with their best and richest deals now, because the bigger the foothold Amazon gets now, the worse it will be for the other networks down the line.

All of this steers back to Dallas and Prescott. Of course, it’s pure speculation that Jones would suddenly cave to putting Prescott onto a historically lucrative path over the next decade. And as we’ve written before, the Cowboys had serious motivations to get this deal done now after essentially fighting it for two years. But it’s also fair to suggest that nobody understands the financial realities of the television deals better than Jones. And it’s worth noting that the NFL has made enough progress over the past month on the broadcasting rights deals that they are expected to land soon. Maybe as soon as the end of March.

Regardless of the timeframe, Jerry Jones knows what’s coming for the NFL’s bottom line. And the contract he just agreed to with Prescott suggests he’s extremely bullish on being able to afford blowing out a quarterback salary for the next 10 years. But the deals coming for the NFL might change everything, making Prescott’s lightning strike look like a modest spark.

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