Top five: books about the business of football

“It’s a business.” So goes the phrase that echoes around the NFL every off-season as players are cut and others brought in to replace them. There’s little room for loyalty when teams have to gather the best talent they can without exceeding the salary cap, while players must maximise their earning potential over the course of a short and dangerous career.

But that isn’t the only aspect of the NFL that is governed by ruthless business logic. Everything from sponsorships, to team ownership, to stadium deals and the college system is part of a lucrative money-making enterprise. Here are five of the best books to shed light on the business side of the game.

1The League (1986) by David Harris

Published in 1986, The League was the first book to seriously analyse the NFL. Harris, a former Rolling Stone journalist, and, at the time the book was written, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, spent three years researching the book and interviewing key figures. The book’s subtitle, The Rise and Decline of the NFL, proved to be premature but at the time the league was going through unprecedented unrest and its future was in question. This book looks at how it got there.

2Brand NFL (2007) by Michael Oriard

Mike Oriard played offensive line for the Kansas City Chiefs in the early 1970s before becoming an academic. In Brand NFL, he brings an analytical eye to the way the league shaped its brand through careful management of the on-field spectacle, powerful associations with values such as patriotism, and uncompromising negotiations with players. Published in 2007, this is a good follow-up to Harris’s book.
Full review
Buy the book: Amazon US, Amazon UK

3Glory For Sale (1997) by Jon Morgan

A writer who specialises in the business of sport, Jon Morgan examines the business of moving franchises in Glory For Sale. The book centres on Baltimore, which lost its NFL team in 1984 when the Colts fled to Indianapolis overnight, and gained one more than a decade later when Art Modell moved his Browns from Cleveland. The key to all this is stadium deals and Morgan digs into the financing and backroom dealing that goes into them. It’s a fascinating read, even if you aren’t a fan of one of the teams in question.

4Not For Long (2018) by Dr Robert Turner

Dr Robert Turner played in the NFL, the CFL and the USFL before becoming an academic. Now a sociologist, this book grew out of his doctoral dissertation and examines how players are treated at every level of the game. There’s a particular emphasis on the NFL, where the majority of players will find their careers come to an end unexpectedly and before they are ready. Turner looks at how they handle that pressure, among the others that a pro footballer faces.
Full review | Robert Turner interview
Buy the book:
Amazon US, Amazon UK

5The System (2013) by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

Underpinning the NFL is a college football system whose players are used to generate vast sums for their school, in return for a scholarship. It’s an arrangement that is much criticised and often leads to scandal, but it has its share of adamant defenders. Benedict and Keteyian’s book is a sweeping examination of the game that paints a balanced picture of the controversial system that supplies the NFL’s talent.
Buy the book: Amazon US, Amazon UK

Photo: Erin Costa

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