Super Bowl XLIX: 'NFL flourishes amid mayhem and chaos'
As National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell stepped to the podium for his annual pre-Super Bowl address, he could have done worse than invoke the Queen's speech of 1992 in which HRH Elizabeth II referred to the events of the previous 12 months as an 'annus horribilis'.
For this has been the worst year on this, or indeed any other, commissioner's watch.
As the league closes in on an annual revenue of £16bn ($25bn), expansion plans into Europe and specifically London, continue apace.
And as Goodell tops up his bank balance with a yearly income in the region of £26m ($40m), the professional game of American Football is more popular and yet, some would argue, more contemptible than ever.
Fifty NFL players were arrested in 2014 for a wide degree of offences - from Tennessee's Shonn Greene, who parked in a disabled parking bay, to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, who was arrested over child abuse.
There were five cases of domestic violence, including that of Baltimore's Ray Rice, who was filmed by hotel security punching his then fiancee - now wife - in a lift.
Goodell himself became personally embroiled in the Rice case in an argument over what the NFL did or did not know.
There was also a far-reaching report chaired by the former director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, which highlighted the fundamental mismanagement of the situation by league officials.
And the bad news kept on coming for the embattled commissioner.
Just 30 days into 2015, there have been four fresh player arrests, including two for domestic violence and one for rape.
Elsewhere, it is a sorry tale:
- Talented but troubled Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon failed a league-mandated alcohol test on 2 January and could be suspended for the 2015 season after sitting out much of 2014 for repeated drug offences.
- The murder trial of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez began in Massachusetts on Thursday - Hernandez has also been charged with the murder of two other men who reportedly spilled a drink on him in a nightclub in 2012.
- And the trial of Carolina Panthers star defensive end Greg Hardy for assault and threatening to kill his girlfriend begins on 9 February.
Yet despite all this mayhem and chaos the NFL, as a product, is flourishing.
The moral outrage surrounding the cases of Rice and Peterson calmed down fairly quickly and audiences flocked yet again to stadiums around the country.
More than 17m attended the 256 regular season games, the highest figure since 2008, while television audiences hit record highs.
While youth participation figures are down over concerns surrounding long-term brain damage caused by concussion, NFL fans are embracing the game like never before, both within the United States and globally.
The annual Harris Report, which tracks the popularity of American sports, says the NFL is still number one by a huge margin - double the popularity of Major League Baseball and College Football.
A report released this week by the sports market research group Repucom also makes some interesting claims, notably that:
- Russia leads the way in terms of the proportion of the population who follow the NFL.
- In China, the increase in fan support for the game since 2013 is up from 1.7% of the population to 7.9%.
- In the United Kingdom, the increase since 2012 is more than 4% of the population.
Most of the television networks that broadcast the NFL had audiences tuning in in greater numbers than in 2013, while the figures for both Thursday and Monday Night Football were up significantly.
More than 47m people watched the NFL's annual College Draft, yet not one pass was thrown or one tackle made. There were also 9.6m tweets about the event across its three days.
Nielsen, who gather audience ratings in the US, reported extremely strong numbers for the very first 9.30am EST kick-off between Detroit and Atlanta in London, so much so that the NFL will repeat the experiment next season.
Although some fans showed their disdain for Rice, Peterson and others arrested last year by returning their replica shirts, many still turned up wearing Rice's number 27 jersey and Peterson's number 28 long after their cases made the national press.
Despite everything, the NFL remains America's game. So why the appeal in the face of growing off-field problems?
Simply put, the NFL is full of great stories, exceptional games and, most importantly, great players. The college version of the game is flourishing as well.
Elsewhere in America, the other two major professional leagues - the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) - have suffered with falling television ratings and general popularity over the past few years.
|America's 'Big Four' compared|
|League||Teams||Regular-season matches per team|
|Major League Baseball||30||162|
|National Basketball Association||30||82|
|National Football League||32||16|
|National Hockey League||30||82|
Baseball's lack of true star power means it has fallen out of the national conversation, arguably since 1998 and the infamous home-run record chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who have subsequently become embroiled in steroid controversies.
The names of baseball's 2014 All Stars, such as Chase Utley, Nelson Cruz and Paul Goldschmidt, do not possess the same pulling power as football stars such as JJ Watt, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Calvin Johnson.
Baseball simply is not cool anymore and the appeal for the game has become as much regional as it is national.
Jonathan Mahler wrote in the New York Times recently that: "Baseball has never been healthier" - in terms of attendance, revenue, and, unlike the NFL and NBA, freedom from labour strife. "So why does it feel so irrelevant?"
With each team playing 162 games a season, baseball fans tend to watch their own players in action rather than those they have no vested interest in.
That is not the case for the NFL. Almost 19m watched the Dallas Cowboys take on the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football.
The NBA has also suffered in the post-Michael Jordan years, with falling attendances and viewing figures.
However basketball has been rescued somewhat by the LeBron James effect, while the game, with its ongoing connection with hip hop culture, continues to grow with a younger audience.
Along with the phenomenon that is College Basketball's March Madness, it remains a popular sport in America, but continues to be dwarfed by the NFL.
The NBA is, according to the Harris Report, America's sixth most popular sport but is struggling with the increase in popularity of soccer and a resurgence in appreciation for ice hockey.
It would also be foolish to think that the NFL is the only organisation with off-field problems.
Baseball continues to move from one steroid scandal to another, while the NBA has witnessed its own fair share of domestic violence, domestic assault, battery and driving under the influence cases.
The NFL is a runaway success train that shows no sign of halting.
And while the on-field product remains so good, the off-field issues will be nothing more than a distraction.
Green Bay Packers fan Zoe Lake is representative of millions: "Football has always been a part of my life. As a football fan and a woman, I believe the NFL needs to take a good, hard look at the way it has handled the epidemic of violence that has rocked the league and the nation.
"But recent events will not keep me from tuning in to catch my Packers. Let's not forget: It is only a small number of NFL players who have committed violent acts against women and children."
In April's Draft, commissioner Goodell will welcome University of Oklahoma wide receiver Dorial Green Beckham into the professional ranks, potentially in the first round.
Multiple drug arrests and a dismissal from the University of Missouri for allegedly forcing open an apartment door and pushing an 18-year-old woman down a flight of stairs will not stop him being given every opportunity to succeed on the field.
Even if he transgresses again, it will be just another problem for America's most popular sport. But a problem it will overcome, have no doubt.