The NFL has made Canadian Mary Ann Turcke the highest-ranking female executive at a major sports league.
The league will no doubt be congratulated for promoting a woman as its chief operating officer and for good reason.
But the promotion says as much about Turcke’s boss, commissioner Roger Goodell, and what he hopes to achieve in his remaining years at the league, as it does about burnishing the NFL’s public image. Goodell wants to groom a potential successor, and the departure of Tod Leiweke, Turcke’s predecessor as COO, leaves Brian Rolapp, chief media and business officer of the NFL, as the leading internal candidate to take over, at least for now.
But more immediately, Goodell needs to placate owners who want a more streamlined — and downsized — league headquarters that focuses more heavily on on-field issues and creating revenue.
In December, the 32 NFL owners, after much consternation, agreed to extend Goodell’s contract an additional five years, through 2024. At that point, Goodell, who has spent his entire professional career with the NFL, will be 65. While he has been coy publicly, Goodell has told some owners that he views this NFL contract to be his last.
Like presidents who are re-elected, Goodell is reshaping his staff for what will likely be his stretch run, according to several people familiar with the shakeup at the NFL.
“Roger looked at his executive team and is thinking, I’ve just been awarded a new contract, so who do I want on my team over the next five, seven years?” said one person with knowledge of the promotion.
Leiweke was brought in three years ago to help handle some of the day-to-day work that Goodell was doing. Leiweke, who was once chief executive of the Seattle Seahawks, was close with Goodell. But he was less visible to the owners, and he did not control any of the major divisions that generate income for the league, most notably the media group, where Turcke worked.
Leiweke is just the latest in what is turning into a string of departures. Natalie Ravitz, who was hired as a media specialist, has already left. Joe Lockhart, the league spokesman, is also leaving. Last year, the league offered buyouts to employees at its headquarters, and roughly a dozen people took the offer. Other executives may be eased out of their jobs as well.
The question for Goodell is how their replacements will help him accomplish his most important mandate from his bosses: increasing the league’s profits. The commissioner’s two biggest challenges are clear: Renew and enhance the bevy of major media contracts that expire around 2020 and 2021, and renegotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the players union before it expires in 2021.
On that front, promoting Turcke makes sense. She worked for the past year in Los Angeles at NFL Network, which has grown in prominence, even as it copes with a series of sexual harassment accusations. Before joining the NFL, the Queen’s University and University of Toronto alum was the president of Bell Media, which included television and radio broadcasting and digital media.
Like other leagues, the NFL is trying to figure out how to make more money streaming games and other content over the internet. The NFL’s television ratings have fallen the past two seasons, in large part because younger viewers are more likely to consume sports on their phones or tablets and less likely to subscribe to pricey pay-television services.
Despite the decline in ratings, though, the league continues to get a premium for its product.
In December, Verizon agreed to pay more than $2 billion (U.S.) over the next five years for the rights to stream games. The league also sold its Thursday Night Football package to Fox for $660 million annually, up from the $450 million it received from CBS and NBC.
As a relative newcomer to the league, Turcke may also have an easier time reshaping some of the league’s departments. As COO, she will run the marketing, communications, human resources, international and events, and technology departments.
One of the tougher issues the Kingston, Ont., native will face may be pushing out longtime employees and hiring replacements — or not. Some owners have complained that the league office has become too unwieldy, with new departments devoted to investigating players and other employees, another department focused on social initiatives and a larger public relations profile. Others want to overhaul the league’s constitution to dilute the power of the commissioner.
“There’s nobody that doesn’t see the need for changes in the NFL in several areas,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “We’re doing a lot of things good, but there are some areas we need to change. One of them is an antiquated constitution, an antiquated situation as to the power of the commissioner.”
The power of the commissioner, of course, includes his subordinates, which is why the departure of the league’s chief operating officer is one of the changes on the way at the league’s headquarters.