Business lessons from the NFL: Favre, Tebow and the Steelers

Baseball is America’s national pastime. There’s nothing like catching a game at the ballpark.

But when it comes to sports on television, the U.S. is all about football. And the NFL season kicks off Sept. 9 on NBC, with a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship game between the Minnesota Vikings and the eventual Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints.

No other sport is wedded so perfectly to TV than football, given the many and varied camera angles, close-ups, replays, digital technology and the good old telestrator.

To its credit, the NFL understands the video advantage it has over other sports, and has reaped great rewards accordingly. Some $4 billion — or about half of the NFL’s total revenues — are raked in through television contracts with ESPN, NBC, CBS, Fox and DirecTV.

Understanding and capitalizing on one’s competitive advantage may seem simple and straightforward, but how many businesses miss the point, and suffer or even fail as a result?

Beyond grasping where and how one fits best in the marketplace, the NFL provides other lessons for the larger business community. Consider three examples.

First, a question: How many times have you heard it said in business, “No one is irreplaceable”?

But what about the return, once again, of quarterback Brett Favre to the Minnesota Vikings, as announced on Aug. 18? Both last year and this time around, many criticized the Vikings for giving Favre special treatment, including the head coach and teammates visiting his Mississippi home, and allowing the quarterback to miss a good chunk of training camp.

No doubt, Favre has received star treatment. But where would the Vikings be without him? Last season, they finished 12-4, and arguably missed the Super Bowl by only a play or two. That would not have happened without Favre. The 40-year-old put the team on his back, throwing for 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns, with a mere seven interceptions. And with Favre this year, the Vikings are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Without him, given the team’s other quarterback personnel, they simply are not. At least for two NFL seasons, Favre has been irreplaceable for the Vikings.

Do other examples of irreplaceables exist in the business world? Of course. How about Steve Jobs at Apple Computer? Or John Lasseter at Pixar? And what about the entrepreneurs who build and operate millions of small businesses across the nation? Indeed, some people are irreplaceable in business.

Second, character matters. When the Denver Broncos took University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, much criticism followed. Despite his 2007 Heisman Trophy and helping his team win two national championships, big doubts loom over Tebow. Specifically, football technicians noted that Tebow’s long passing motion that worked in college would not cut it in the much faster NFL.

The technicians are right to question Tebow’s passing mechanics. But focusing purely on mechanics misses critical intangibles, such as character, leadership, work ethic and heart. By all accounts, Tebow is rich in each.

Character, of course, seems a bit too rare in football these days. But is it better to work with high quality people or shady ones? Doesn’t character matter when it comes to building trust and honesty in the workplace?

And by the way, the character factor can directly impact the bottom line. It’s important to understand that coming into this season, Tebow ranks as the Broncos third-string quarterback, behind Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn. Yet, in late July, the Palm Beach Post reported the following about Tebow: “Already, his jersey is the No. 1 seller in the NFL. The league website sells his jersey in orange, white, and blue and in all adult and youth sizes. also offers two versions for women, the ‘Zebra Field Flirt’ and ‘Pink Sweetheart.’”

Apparently, NFL fans see value in character, particularly, no doubt, when contrasted with far-too-common tales of unsavory actions by top players.

Third, does stable leadership over time pay off over the so-called quick fix?

The quick fix all too often is the answer in sports, and in business in general. If coaches or managers fail to turn a team around on a dime, or falter for a season, the result regularly involves firing the head coach.

But it’s been different with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In January 2007, Mike Tomlin was hired as the 16th head coach in the team’s history. What’s the big deal? He’s only the third coach to lead the team since 1969. Chuck Noll was head coach from 1969-1991, and Bill Cowher from 1992-2006. Oh yes, over this period, the Steelers have made the playoffs 24 times, and no team has won more Super Bowls — four under Noll, one under Cowher and another under Tomlin.

The owners of the Steelers — the Rooney family — are not about the quick fix. Instead, they find the right person to lead their enterprise, and let him do the job. With the goal being winning the Super Bowl, no one can argue with the Steelers in terms of success. There’s a lot to be said in football and in business for stability in leadership.

Just a few business thoughts and lessons to ponder while channel surfing among NFL games this season.

Keating is chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council. He can be reached at