Dak Prescott, 2021’s highest-paid NFL player, takes on the Buccaneers Thursday to open Week 1.
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

The Biggest Stories in Football as the 2021 NFL Season Begins

From rookie QBs making debuts to record-setting revenue goals for the most valuable team in sports, the narratives are thick with Week 1 finally upon us.

The NFL off-season has brought endless action, from marquee signings to the league’s belated buy-in to sports betting. And with a rookie class filled with raw talent, this season is set up to launch more than a few new stars. 

Fueling the anticipation, fans will also return to stadiums as the league and the NFLPA have worked together to create the best possible conditions despite such real challenges.

With the defending champion Buccaneers kicking things off against the Dallas Cowboys Thursday night, the stage is finally set for a raucous run to Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles.

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The Next Generation of QBs

A batch of fresh faces is driving anticipation, too — in an action-packed preseason, several rookies stepped up.

At quarterback alone, eight were taken in the first round of the 2021 Draft. After outstanding preseason performances, we’ll see a slew of Week 1 starters, including:

  • New England’s Mac Jones (vs. Dolphins Sunday)
  • Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence (at Texans Sunday)
  • The Jets’ Zach Wilson (at Panthers Sunday)

Others like Trey Lance (49ers) and Justin Fields (Bears) are still chasing QB1 dream, though their big chances are likely only a matter of time. 

Perhaps the better question is how many first-round rookies won’t be starting come Week 18.

The Business Only Gets Bigger

With the 53-man rosters set and a 17th game added to the regular-season schedule, 2021 is shaping up to be one of historic proportions. Quite simply, as highlighted by the latest figures from Sportico, even a pandemic couldn’t stop the business of the NFL from booming:

  • Team valuations are up 14%, with the average franchise estimated to be worth $3.5 billion
  • No team’s value matured by less than 10%
  • At $6.9 billion, the Dallas Cowboys are the most valuable sporting franchise in the world.
  • Just this week, America’s Team announced a 10-year, $200 million extension to their partnership with Molson Coors, and they have a real chance to become the first sports team ever to drive $1 billion in revenue in a single year.
  • Ticket sales are booming, with teams like the Chargers showing “robust surges” that beat previous benchmarks.
  • The total combined value of NFL teams is an estimated $112 billion (with the caveat that Sportico’s valuations also include teams’ real estate assets).

At this rate, the NFL is doing just about everything to exploit new revenue streams other than going all-in on crypto — the league decided that teams cannot create NFTs or partner with crypto companies for stadium naming rights this year.

But even setting the blockchain business aside, we are in store for the most lucrative season the league has ever seen

With all this in mind, if you were surprised to hear that 85% of TV ad space for Super Bowl LVI was already sold out, don’t be.

Highest-paid Players of the 2021 NFL Season

PLAYERPOS.TEAM2021 $
1. Dak PrescottQBDAL$75M
2. Trent WilliamsOTSF$32.27M
3. Jonathan AllenDTWAS$31.14M
4. Tom BradyQBTB$27.55M
5. Leonard WilliamsDENYG$26M
Highest-earning NFL players of 2021 by total compensation (figures via Spotrac)

Intrigue & Opportunity Off the Field

The action on the field is only part of the story entering the new season, however. A slew of off-field storylines will continue to shape the games to come:

  • COVID continues to affect NFL rosters despite league reports of a 93% vaccination rate more or less unanimously regarded as impressive.
  • Coaches came under fire during training camps both when they acknowledged the role that vaccination status might have played in roster decisions (Jacksonville’s Urban Meyer) and when they sidestepped questions on the matter entirely (New England’s Bill Belichick). 
  • The league will continue its $250 million commitment to social justice work, shifting its focus this season to the Black wealth gap.

A pandemic year of unprecedented uncertainty and eerily (mostly) empty stadiums robbed us of so much of the enjoyment we’re so used to getting from the most popular sport in America. But now, finally, football isn’t simply “coming.”

It’s here.

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