NFL Lockout 2011: How the NFL Is Shooting Itself in the Foot

Shaun TobackCorrespondent IApril 1, 2011

This man needs to take it upon himself to stop what would an epic mistake by the NFL
This man needs to take it upon himself to stop what would an epic mistake by the NFLSean Gardner/Getty Images

Early April is a boring time to be an NFL fan. This season, with the lockout upon us, is especially dull. Without free agency, and the upcoming draft in limbo, football fans are wondering if there will even be a season to discuss come September. This year, the lockout has become the dominant story. And although it’s boring, at least it doesn’t involve Brett Favre, right?

Unfortunately for ESPN, there are very few lockout-related storylines that the average NFL fan actually cares about. Will it result in an 18 game regular season? Will players’ sacrifice long-term health care issues in exchange for financial security for the average NFL player, whose career only lasts 2-3 seasons? Does Albert Haynesworth even know there’s a lockout happening, or does he think this total lack of workouts are just part of a normal offseason conditioning program?

But one issue that has been under-addressed in the media is the one that NFL owners and players alike should be most concerned with – and that is the long-term effects on a fan base that a lockout can have. NFL fans will accept a lockout in April. We will tolerate a quieted free agent season and a lower-profile draft. Heck, we will even do without preseason games. It’s not like anyone thinks they really matter anyways.

But we will not tolerate a loss of regular season games. It’s not that we can’t live without football. We’d prefer not to, but we can. It’s that we won’t accept living without football because of the petty squabbles of millionaires and billionaires. If those who have lifestyles that we could never dream of—the filthy rich, the famous, the most revered of our society—cannot figure out how to split up their riches, the NFL will be surprised at how fast fans will turn on them. It is amazing how quickly the insanely wealthy can alienate those who have provided their wealth.

Part of the reason football is so popular in America is that it appeals to the most basic parts of our humanity. It is fast. It is flashy. It is violent. It is incredibly simple, yet amazingly complex. It is the most intriguing of distractions. And because it is all of these things, watching a game immediately gives us a break from the often-dull nature of our lives. There are far fewer moments of pause than in baseball. Unlike basketball, masks hide the player’s faces. There is nothing to focus on but the engrossing nature of the game.

The lockout, and the related public airing of grievances between players and owners, is everything that the general public hates about sports. It goes against the most basic appeal of football, and forces fans to focus on something other than the game itself. It immediately turns fans attentions from everything that is good about football to everything that is bad about sports.

Owners and players think this doesn’t matter. They see that football’s popularity in America is at an all-time high. They see the revenue that will be generated by the sport in the next 10 years, and they focus on how to divide that money.

They see this country’s love for football, and their eyes get wide with dollar signs. What they are not accounting for is the fickle nature of the sporting public. Yes, we love football…for the moment. But public perception can change 180 degrees at any time. Just ask Tiger Woods.

And a lockout is a great way to change public perception. Before baseball’s strike in 1994, the sport’s popularity was incredibly high. Owners and players saw this popularity and thought, “Hey, we’re the ones who provide this product, we deserve more.” And just as NFL players and owners are doing now, they stopped working to fight about it.

At first, fans were fine with this. Well, not fine, but not up in arms either. But then the World Series got canceled, and everything changed. To baseball fans, the World Series isn’t just a yearly meeting of baseball’s best. It is its own season. It is an intrinsic part of what makes every year special to a baseball fan. It is a time to get together with your friends and family and rejoice in the simple pleasures of a child’s game. Even though none of us play in the World Series, it is an incredibly important part of our lives.

But baseball players and owners thought that we could live without it for a year. They thought that we would quickly forget what a disagreement between rich men had cost us. We were expected to jump headfirst back into baseball once they were generous enough to grace us with its return.

But by taking away the World Series, they owners and players had crossed the fans in a way that would not be so quickly forgotten. When baseball did come back, fans weren’t grateful. We were angry. We had supplied baseball with our hard-earned money for years. Money that comes as a result of lives that are significantly more difficult and mundane than those of professional athletes. And in return? They had taken something we loved.

Baseball fans came back eventually. But it took years. It took baseball turning its head to steroid use, creating a falsely elevated level of play to entice viewers back to their televisions. It took Major League Baseball selling its soul, and costing the game a black eye that will not fade. To get fans back, the sport compromised that which is most sacred to it: its records.

Football players and owners are on the verge of displaying a similar hubris. If they cannot negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement by the start of the regular season, they will begin to lose fans, and quickly. If for some reason this lockout should cost the NFL regular season or playoff games, the results will be drastically worse.

People will argue that the NFL is at the height of its powers, and its status as America’s new national pastime makes it immune from desertion or a loss of fan base. But keep in mind that football has only become America’s pastime recently, and in large part because our old pastime hung us out to dry. Repeating these mistakes will result repetition of results as well.

Before baseball’s strike, the sport was making rich men out of players and owners alike. By striking for 948 total games, less than a full season, they managed to lower the sport’s total revenue by 20 percent when they returned in 1995. They cost themselves millions of dollars, maybe billions, during the discontented years that followed  . The irony here is that NFL players and owners, in this mad cash grab that is the lockout, are not seeing the forest for the trees.

The revenue that football in America has generated in recent years, and the revenue that is projected in coming years, are partially a result of football being constant. When it is constant, it becomes ingrained in our lives. March and April is free agency. Late April is the draft. The preseason begins in August, and September means football time. We always know when the Super Bowl will be held, and we’re always ready to lose money and company time on fantasy football. The football schedule is year-round, and it is unchanging.

But if the NFL betrays this, if they take this away from its fans, they will see the backlash that baseball experienced in 1995. In a way, this process has already begun. Although it is only the free agency period (football’s least exciting time of year, Pro Bowl aside), this schedule has already been interrupted. And NFL players and fans should be aware of the slippery slope they are creating. Right now, fans have a sense of detached indifference to the lockout. In four months, they will not be so kind. In six months, things will get really ugly.

NFL Football at this moment in America is far more lucrative than baseball was in the 1990s. This doesn’t mean that they have more leeway to negotiate and mess around with the season. It means they have more to lose.

This is especially true for the players, whose careers are already short and non-guaranteed. For them, this means walking a very fine line. They have to do what is best for their union, and try to get some of the guarantees given to baseball and basketball players. But they also must realize that they are the faces of the league, and they are the ones who will ultimately lose the most in a lockout-shortened year. Not only will they lose a year off of their football viability, they will lose the fans.

I recognize the inherent unfairness of this. The owners, the billionaires, are the ones to who can afford to wait out the players. The players have more to lose, and are less equipped to lose it. However, the same dangers that exist for the players exist for the owners as well. A loss of fans means fewer jersey sales, ticket sales, and TV revenue. A loss of popularity means owners don’t sell out those luxury boxes anymore. The owners must realize that they are playing a dangerous game as well.

When Major League Baseball players returned from strike in 1995, there were league-wide protests of opening day. This was incredibly damaging to the sport both economically and public relations-wise. A similar result for football would be even more damaging, as there are only 16 revenue-generating games in football, instead of the 162 in baseball. The loss of even one game is a loss that the NFL cannot afford.

The NFL owners and players need to realize what is at stake here. Although things seem like they can’t get any better, they need to realize that things can always get much worse. The NFL is walking a tightrope, but for some reason no one is talking about what is at stake; the extra revenue they have worked so hard for, the fans, and the death that comes from a fall off an apex.