Everyone knows the No. 1 challenge facing the NFL is concussions and the long-term health problems they cause players. The lawsuits -- one after another -- from former players accusing the league of doing little or nothing to make the game safer are just starting. Millions of dollars could be at stake for the owners. That's why commissioner Roger Goodell came down so hard this month on the New Orleans Saints for putting bounties on opposing players. That's why he has been so tough with the Steelers' James Harrison for what the league perceived as cheap-shot hits. Goodell wants everyone to think he cares deeply about player safety. Actually, he cares more about the owners' long-term financial wellbeing.
But there is another major threat to the NFL. It is so significant that Goodell and the owners spent 90 minutes talking about it at their meetings this week in Palm Beach, Fla.
As Goodell put it earlier this year:
"How do we keep people coming to our stadiums when the experience is so great at home?"
If you attend an NFL game, you must buy gas at upwards of $4 per gallon to get there, fight traffic, pay a big price to park, pay a bigger price to get into the stadium, stand in line for the restrooms and the concession stands, pay an exorbitant amount for food and drink and maybe, just maybe, have to deal with drunk, abusive, vulgar fans, who spill beer at your feet or vomit in the aisle next to you or, at the very least, ask you to get up 15 times during the game so they can go to the restroom.
If you stay home to watch an NFL game, you can see it on your fabulous new television that practically puts you in your team's huddle, make it to the refrigerator or bathroom quickly during TV timeouts, avoid most expenses and -- depending on which friends you invite to the house -- not have to deal with spilled beer or vomit.
Yep, that's a pretty big challenge facing Goodell and his NFL.
"We are committed to improving the fan experience in every way we can -- from the time the fans arrive in the parking lot to when they depart the stadium," Goodell has said. "We want everyone to be able to come to our stadiums and enjoy the entire day."
Quick aside to the commissioner:
Good luck with that.
That isn't to say the stadium experience is all bad. It always will provide something the fans at home can't get. It puts you right in the middle of the action. At Heinz Field, Steelers fans feel as if they have something to do with the team's success. That's a powerful, overwhelming, addictive feeling. To many, it is worth all of the high costs that go with going to a game. You can't get it in your living room.
It also doesn't mean that all fans are bad. Most act like adults. Most drink alcoholic beverages responsibly. Most are respectful of other fans.
The problem is there seems to be a growing number of jerks in the stands. These fools often ruin the stadium experience for those seated around them. Most are alcohol-fueled. They gain strength from being largely anonymous in the big crowd and do offensive, even violent things that they wouldn't think of doing in another setting. Testosterone is flowing on the field. They figure it should flow in the stands, as well.
One obvious solution is to eliminate beer sales during games. You know that isn't going to happen. Teams make too much money from the beer companies. Did you know Anheuser-Busch spent $250 million during the past 10 years just on Super Bowl ads? It's hard to imagine Goodell and the owners doing anything to jeopardize that relationship.
What the teams will do is try to monitor the beer sales more closely and refuse to sell to those who are visibly drunk. They also will continue to ask for fans to report -- via anonymous texts -- any offensive behavior they might see. They promise to quickly respond and eject the troublemakers without refund and with the loss of future ticket privileges.
Will it be enough? It's hard to say that with much confidence. At times, a stadium filled with 65,000 or more people can seem almost overwhelming to any security force.
The day could come when local officials, at the urging of the NFL, prohibits tailgating. DUI checkpoints also could be set up after the games, again at the behest of Goodell and Co.
That might seem excessive. It might seem unfair to the many good fans that go to the NFL games. But know this: Goodell has been known to be tough -- some would say even excessive and unfair -- when it comes to protecting his league's best interests. Stopping abhorrent fan behavior is at the top of his list, just as it should be.