The owners got another reminder of that possibility on Wednesday, when ESPN, the 800-pound gorilla of sports television, laid off about 100 on-air sportscasters and reporters, including a handful of veteran writers for its digital site who covered the N.F.L.
Before then came a wave of relocations that pushed the league into new markets — but also alienated fans in three cities that lost, or are losing, teams: San Diego, St. Louis and Oakland, Calif. The Rams are now playing in Los Angeles; next season the Chargers will be there, and by 2019, the Raiders will be in Las Vegas.
The moves re-emphasized that the league’s biggest priority remains making money — from relocation fees the moving teams pay the league, plus the league’s cut of naming rights, sponsorships and other revenue boosts — no matter the complaints from deserted fans.
Credit Matt Rourke/Associated Press
The league is still facing more cosmic questions, most notably the long-term effects of concussions. With the help of a federal judge in Philadelphia, the N.F.L. agreed to pay millions of dollars to former players who have received diagnoses for serious neurological conditions. So far, a few hundred players have applied for cash payouts, with many more likely to come.
Though they continue to watch N.F.L. games in droves, some fans now take a jaundiced view of the owners, and particularly the commissioner, Roger Goodell, who speaks for them.
Mike Carr, a Cleveland Browns fan who drove 15 hours from Michigan to watch the draft, seemed to sum up that outlook. Carr wore a T-shirt that said “Johnny Rehab,” a nod to Johnny Manziel, the troubled quarterback drafted by the Browns in 2014. Before the draft began, Carr said he had made the trip in the hope that he could watch the Browns acquire Myles Garrett, the defensive end from Texas A&M, as the No. 1 overall pick, which they ultimately did.
“But I’m mostly really looking forward to booing Goodell,” he said.
Carr was not alone, based on the deafening boos from fans that greeted Goodell every time he took the stage.
Concussions aren’t the only legal headache confronting the league. Hundreds of retired players have also sued the N.F.L., asserting that their teams gave them painkillers without explaining the risks, including the possibility of addiction. A growing number of players are now asking the N.F.L. to let them use medical marijuana to deal with the pain associated with playing football. But Goodell once again shot down that idea on Friday, suggesting that marijuana is addictive and nodding to the possibility that the N.F.L. could be sued if it softened its stance on its use.
“And it’s not as simple as someone just wants to feel better after a game,” Goodell said on the “Mike & Mike” radio show. “We really want to help our players in that circumstance, but I want to make sure that the negative consequences aren’t something that is something that we’ll be held accountable for some years down the road.”
The N.F.L., of course, will not fall from its perch any time soon, thought its growth may slow. To keep the money coming in, the owners have pushed overseas, with more games in London, Mexico and, leagues officials have said, China, at some point. The league is also striking digital-media deals, like the one it signed with Amazon to stream games on Thursday nights.
The N.F.L. will also continue to turn the draft into a moneymaking roadshow by moving it to new cities every so often.
But if that is not enough, the draft might take on underdog status after all.