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Column: Donald Trump’s campaign is based on the NFL’s business model. Here’s how

New Orleans Saints cornerback Tracy Porter (22) returns an interception for a touchdown in the 2010 Super Bowl. New Orleans is the smallest local TV market in the league.
(AP)

Political pundits have been wondering — or depending on the partisan affiliation, chortling — about Donald Trump’s choice of venues for his campaign appearances. In recent weeks, these have included rallies in Texas, a reliably red state, and Mississippi, where not only does he poll higher than in any other state, but the prize is a measly six electoral votes.

On the other side of the ledger are Trump appearances in states like Maine, which also has a tiny number of electoral votes (four), but is fairly securely blue.

The looming start of the National Football League season allows us to recognize the basis of Trump’s campaign strategy: It’s the NFL’s business model.

It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.

CBS Chairman Les Moonves shows he understood the television value of the Trump campaign

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What the NFL and the Trump campaign have in common is an utter disregard for local audiences. In their stead, the national television audience is elevated to prime position.

Television executives themselves understand the principle as it applies to the presidential campaign. Recall the unalloyed joy expressed by CBS Chairman Les Moonves last March at the revenue being generated by Trump’s appearances on CBS telecasts. “Who would have thought this circus would come to town?” he laughed. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in. … This is fun.”

The NFL executed its strategy through the concept of team parity, as articulated by its architect, Pete Rozelle: “On any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team.” Over the years, the sharing of team revenue has enabled teams with the very smallest local markets to rise to the top of the standings, and therefore national popularity: Green Bay, Buffalo, Seattle, Pittsburgh, etc.

Of the contestants in the last 10 Super Bowls, 11 came from markets in the lower half of league metro areas, ranked by size. Compare that to the record of Major League Baseball, which also has tried to equalize the resources of small-market teams, but not nearly as effectively: Of the last 20 World Series teams, only six represented markets in the bottom half. (We’re counting multiple appearances by teams separately.)

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For decades, this has worked wonders for the NFL, pumping up the value of its national TV contracts; in fact, NFL teams don’t even have local TV contracts. Last year, the league’s national contracts drove its revenue to a record $7.3 billion, producing $226.4 million for each team. These deals include $3.1 billion per year from broadcasters for Sunday games, plus separate packages for ESPN, CBS on Thursday nights and DirecTV.

The disdain the NFL has for its local audiences is manifest in the way it treated Los Angeles, the nation’s second-biggest local TV market, which went without an NFL franchise for two decades. That gap started during a period in which the NFL deliberately pursued a mid-market strategy, moving the Rams to St. Louis, a shift from the nation’s second-largest metro area to its 20th largest, and from Houston (fifth) to Memphis (42nd), and ultimately to Nashville (36th).

There’s no way the league would have abandoned Los Angeles if the size of the local market mattered at all to its money-making ability. Its moves were prompted entirely by a hunt for stadium deals, which were important only because the TV revenue brought in locally was immaterial. Los Angeles might have produced a huge core of local fans (and may again, with the return of the Rams this year). But why should the league care? It can sell Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks jerseys to buyers coast to coast. The most perennially popular NFL team probably is the Green Bay Packers, who represent a community that ranks 157th in population among U.S. metro areas.

The league can pursue this strategy because its game lends itself to television; in the average NFL telecast, there are almost no clues about where the game is being played, outside of the order in which the team names are displayed on the screen (the home team is second.)

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That’s plainly the strategy guiding the Trump campaign. An appearance in Jackson, Miss., may be meaningless in terms of the local vote, but that doesn’t matter because the rally will get wall-to-wall TV coverage, in a way that obscures the fact that the event is being held in Mississippi. Because the Mississippi crowd is likely to be more vocal on Trump’s behalf than a crowd in, say, Boston, so much the better.

The Trump campaign provides multiple signposts of this strategy. The idea of Donald Trump wading into a crowd to shake hands and jaw personally with voters is unimaginable; every appearance is crafted for TV. Compare his lectern-oriented approach to that of Vice President Joe Biden, who managed to make a personal, human connection the other day from the dais with a heckler in the crowd.

Trump’s meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico was carefully arranged so that any actual meatiness took place privately, with a bland photo op to follow for the cameras; the wisdom of this was clear the moment the event broke its boundaries, with Peña Nieto’s accusation later that Trump had lied about their conversation. Trump’s much-ballyhooed appearance at a black church in Detroit scheduled for Saturday has been crafted almost entirely as a photo opportunity, complete with preapproved script.

This is, to be sure, a laboratory experiment in electioneering. The old politician’s saw that “all politics is local.” With Trump, as with the NFL, nothing is local.

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Will it work? All we know is that it works for the NFL. But the league has a product it has burnished for years, and it tries — and generally succeeds — in controlling all aspects of that product, including supposedly independent commentary, on-camera and off.

Politics is rather different because there’s another contestant out there determined to puncture the TV image. The Donald Trump product, moreover, hasn’t won as much universal acceptance as the National Football League. Its ratings are struggling.

Still, the NFL’s approach to its marketing was revolutionary among pro sports teams; that’s why Rozelle is considered a pioneer. Maybe Trump will remake the rules of presidential politics in the same way.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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