The business of pro football

VIENNA, W.Va.- A top executive with the Pittsburgh Steelers pulled the curtain back a bit on the operations of the NFL team Thursday during a speech before the Economic Roundtable of the Ohio Valley.

“As a fan, you look at things sometimes and you think, ‘What were they thinking?'” said Bob Tyler, director of finance and chief financial officer for the Steelers, during a luncheon at the Parkersburg Country Club.

“We hated to lose, for example, James Harrison,” he said, referring to the popular linebacker who was released last year for financial reasons and ended up signing with the division rival Cincinnati Bengals.

More than 40 people attended, with the crowd about evenly split between fans of the Steelers and another rival, the Cleveland Browns. Tyler was the last featured speaker of the season for the Roundtable, a local economic educational group.

Steeler fan David E. Lewis, a vice president with WesBanco, said he enjoyed the opportunity to hear how things work behind the scenes.

“When you’re a fan, you don’t really understand a whole lot about the financial goings-on behind the team and the league,” he said.

Tyler started out discussing the NFL’s labor situation and the lockout before the 2011 season. He said the current collective bargaining agreement assures “labor peace” in the league for a decade and more accurately reflects financial risk and reward. Players had been receiving more than half the revenue, although owners assumed the most financial risk.

It was an issue the players’ union recognized, the disagreement leading to the work stoppage was over how to address it, Tyler said.

“It wasn’t just a question of the owners saying, ‘We’re not making enough money here,'” he said.

One reason the NFL has enjoyed so much success is that league officials are always looking for ways to improve, Tyler said.

“You can’t stay complacent, and you can’t stay in the same place, and that’s part of what made us great,” he said.

New initiatives in the league include expanding its presence outside the continental United States, with three regular season games slated to be played in London’s Wembley Stadium this year. Tyler traveled there in the 2013 season when the Steelers faced the Minnesota Vikings, and saw fans wearing jerseys for teams from “all over the map.”

“What we’re seeing happening is people, as those teams come by, they’re attaching their loyalties to those teams,” he said.

“If I had to guess, I think at some point in time, we’ll probably have a team in London,” Tyler said.

Europe isn’t the only international market for the NFL. Tyler noted games have been played in Mexico City in the past and that a study has shown the two most popular teams in Mexico are the nearby Dallas Cowboys and the Steelers.

“We broadcast all our games into Mexico,” he said.

Tyler said it’s important to the Steelers and other teams to make the fan experience as positive as possible. He acknowledged the increasing availability and declining price of large, high-definition televisions make staying home to watch a game more and more appealing.

“That’s a very real challenge for us,” Tyler said, before adding, “I still believe there’s nothing like actually that live experience.”

The Steelers organization has tried to improve the experience at the stadium by expanding bandwidth capacity so fans can get text messages and access the Internet on their phones at Heinz Field. Wireless Internet options have also increased to enable people to access information on fantasy football, a hobby that continues to grow in popularity.

“To me, fans are still our core business,” Tyler said.

On Wednesday evening, Tyler held a question-and-answer session with Marietta College students in the school’s McDonough Balcony. He had a few questions about how often he interacts with players, but many were less focused on the football aspect of his job.

“Most of the questions were really, truly driven more toward career advice,” he said.