by Kevin Coupe

A few weeks ago, Michael Sansolo wrote a column using the National Football League (NFL) as an example of a popular entity that seems to be on the road to irrelevance.

It is a problem that the NFL seems to understand, Michael wrote: “Rules keep changing to prevent or minimize head injuries; equipment is constantly upgraded; and rubber pellets are now placed on the field to cushion falls. But until parents believe the game won’t threaten the lives and longevity of their kids, the problem remains. That means 10 or 15 years from now, football’s grip on America’s sports culture could fade fast and badly just as boxing’s did.”

It is an example of what can happen to any institution if it does not figure out how to deal with fundamental flaws in the business model - in this case, the likelihood that fewer and fewer young people will play the sport as they grow up, which will threaten high school, college, and eventually, professional leagues.

It’s fair to suggest, I think, that every business has such a flaw. I’ve written for years that there is no such thing as an unassailable business model, and I think that this is a corollary to the problem of irrelevance.

I was thinking about Michael’s column as I read a USA Today story yesterday about a a roundtable discussion at the University of Maryland - part of the university’s annual Shirley Povich Symposium, named after the late Washington Post sports columnist. One of the panelists suggested that “the decline of football, which was once ‘a cash machine,’ is the most significant story in American sports,” and that “the reality is that this game destroys people’s brains.”

The panelist was sportscaster Bob Costas, who hosted “Football Night in America” on NBC for more than 10 years.

Another panelist agreed - Tony Kornheiser, who has been both a sportswriter as well as a one-time color commentator on “Monday Night Football.”

“It’s not going to happen this year, and it’s not going to happen in five years or 10 years," Kornheiser said. "But Bob is right: At some point, the cultural wheel turns just a little bit, almost imperceptibly, and parents say, ‘I don’t want my kids to play.’ And then it becomes only the province of the poor, who want it for economic reasons to get up and out … If they don’t find a way to make it safe, and we don’t see how they will ... the game's not going to be around.”

This is my idea of an Eye-Opener. It isn’t directly about retailing, though there certainly will be some collateral damage if all that football-related marketing money goes away. But I still thought it an inevitable progression to which everybody needs to pay attention.