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Hedge fund manager David Tepper's reportedly record-breaking bid for the NFL's Carolina Panthers has left many wondering if the billionaire may see the franchise as a long-term investment play.
The value of the average NFL franchise more than doubled in the decade from 2007 to 2017, climbing to $2.52 billion from $957 million, according to Forbes. And despite a long bull market in stocks, the S&P 500 has fallen short of doubling in value. It is up just 77 percent over the same time.
Tepper's deal – which remains subject to NFL approval – is reportedly worth $2.2 billion, the most ever paid for a football franchise and dwarfing the $1.4 billion the Pegula family paid for the Buffalo Bills back in 2014.
But while the deal represents a huge initial buyout, Tepper is likely betting on reliable returns. The Pegulas, for example, have seen the value of the Bills climb to $1.6 billion in just two years, netting $200 million more than their initial investment. But Tepper is also likely watching the industry as a whole as the way people enjoy football continues to evolve.
One relatively recent prospect for football fanatics is the ability to watch games online, with Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all vying for an all-important rights contract in recent years.
Last month, the NFL announced that it had reached an agreement to renew its exclusive partnership with Amazon Prime Video to deliver a live digital stream of "Thursday Night Football."
The battle for sports content has been heating up between the tech titans over the last few years. Facebook recently announced that it would exclusively stream 25 Major League Baseball games, while YouTube struck a deal with Los Angeles' Major League Soccer team.
This is the second year Amazon has won a contract with the NFL, reportedly paying $50 million to stream the 10 Thursday night games last year. These burgeoning sources of revenue could prove the next step for the NFL in its quest to keep up with a younger audience.
And that, in turn, could have been one of the reasons Tepper considered buying a sports franchise, according to CNBC contributor and Short Hills Capital Partners founder Stephen Weiss.
"There's always going to be a profit angle, a return on investment calculus," Weiss said. "It still has to be profitable."
Weiss, who's known Tepper and other owners of major sports franchises over the years, said that to assess viewership with the traditional measures may slowly be becoming an outdated model.
"You can't just go by viewership on the major networks, you have to go by other factors because you've got other avenues of revenue," Weiss added. "You've got Amazon, you've got YouTube: That creates arguably even more of a bidding war as well as more ways to leverage the product."
The Panthers deal also comes just after the Supreme Court's ruling allowing states to legalize sports gambling. While the NFL has long opposed legalized sports gambling, the allowance could potentially spell additional revenue sources.
Commenting on the news this week, billionaire investor Mark Cuban said the decision is fantastic news for investors in the sports and gambling industries.
"I think everyone who owns a top four professional sports team just basically saw the value of their team double," the owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks said in a "Squawk Alley " interview. "It can finally become fun to go to a baseball game again."
But while NFL continues on as the most lucrative league in the world, some Wall Street brokerages are growing concerned by a recent string of soft ratings and viewership reports.
J.P. Morgan Chase and Credit Suisse both cited weaker ratings and viewership in notes to clients during the 2017-2018 season, explaining that the apparent decline in viewership could wind up affecting major broadcasters like Fox and ESPN.
The weaker numbers were so concerning that Credit Suisse analyst Omar Sheikh cut his earnings per share estimates on CBS for last year's third quarter.
"We expect third-quarter network advertising to decline 3 percent, driven by soft ratings for both the summer schedule and for the start of the NFL season," Sheikh wrote in October, only to be echoed by J.P. Morgan's Alexia Quadrani one month later.
"Ratings are down in 8 of 10 weeks this season," Quadrani wrote. "We note that ratings picked up in 2016 starting in Week 10, which was the first post-Election Day slate of games."
However, CBS ultimately posted mixed results for the third quarter 2017 and defended its partnership with the NFL in its earnings call.
The NFL "is still the best game in town," CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves said in November, echoing Fox Sports' Shanks. "There's no better way for advertisers to reach a mass audience, and it still provides the best promotional platform to us to launch our new shows."
Ultimately, the relatively soft viewership numbers in 2017 will likely do little to usurp the commanding leadership the NFL – and professional sports more broadly – has over the TV world.
According to Nielsen data, seven of the 10 most popular live or single telecasts in 2017 through November were NFL events, with Super Bowl LI, the Super Bowl postgame, and the AFC Championship game claiming first, second and third place respectively.
That trend is unlikely to end anytime soon, with the earliest 2018 numbers from Nielsen already showing the NFL at the top of the list yet again, likely adding comfort to Tepper in his bid for the Panthers.
"It's like owning a Picasso. There aren't many out there and they rarely come up for sale," said Joe Favorito, a Columbia University professor and strategic communications executive in New York. "You can't find another business, no matter what you do, that if you just maintain it, it appreciates in value like this."
The most recent surge in value, Favorito said, is likely due to the ruthless bidding war for media rights, driving up the league's massive annual haul.
Though specific insights into the NFL's financial situation are limited, a financial disclosure by the Green Bay Packers – the only publicly owned franchise in major U.S. sports – revealed that the NFL distributed a record $7.8 billion to its 32 teams in 2016, according to Bloomberg.
The sizable annual allowance – and its yearly increases – are a direct result of deals like that inked by Fox Sports in January. In exchange for the rights to broadcast the NFL's "Thursday Night Football" for the next five seasons, Fox will dole out $3 billion – or roughly $60 million per game – according to a Reuters source.
That number is an increase from the $45 million per game CBS and Comcast's NBC were paying to broadcast rights during the last season, according to the source.
"You're talking about multi-year, multi-billion dollar media contracts," Favorito said. "That's been the basis for teams that come in: There is a massive pool of assets for you to use."
"Every time there's a sale, a new bar is set."
Disclosures: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com. CNBC owns the exclusive off-network cable rights to "Shark Tank," which features Mark Cuban as a judge.