2011 NFL Lockout: The Great Unrepresented Majority
With the NFL a month removed from the draft, attention in professional football turns inescapably back to the crisis which threatens to engulf the 2012 season: the lockout.
And God, I hate being right (at least some of the time anyway). Seriously though, this was a train-wreck that approached in slow motion.
Nine billion dollars + two groups of stubborn people = a prolonged contest of egos. It wasn’t real complicated.
Still, while I may not agree with its existence, I at least understand the lockout. It’s what I don’t understand about this situation that truly bothers me.
The Group Missing from the Table
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You’ll never hear Roger Goodell or DeMaurice Smith talk about it, but there is one very large, very important group that’s missing from the negotiating table.
Tell me, who represents the fans in the lockout? Is it NFL commissioner Roger Goodell?
The answer is no, because as much as the commissioner tacitly represents the “best interest of the game,” he really represents the owners, make no mistake.
After all, he was hired by a committee composed of eight owners. So while he might diplomatically declare that he has the fans in mind, he knows his job rests on his evaluation in the eyes of 32 owners.
So if Goodell doesn’t represent the fans, then what about the head of the NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith?
Obviously not. His loyalty to the players is absolute.
So that leaves the fans, who are responsible for the $9 billion in revenue that the NFL churns out every season, without anyone having their backs.
Can the NFL Be Trusted to Regulate Itself?
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The traditional reason why fans aren’t represented directly in the negotiations is that “the market regulates itself.” In other words, if the league is screwing over fans, then fans simply won’t go.
Of course, I don’t think I need to remind anyone about the consequences of what can happen when “the market regulates itself.” The disaster of the housing market proved the possible faults in this method all too well.
And just like so many of the big banks, the NFL isn’t doing anything technically illegal. They’re just creating a market for people who like to immerse themselves in pro football. If people legally pay, can you fault the league for trying to make a profit?
Yet when left to their own devices, what exactly has the NFL done?
In 2009? It totals over $9 billion. And the money hasn’t just come from the vaunted television contracts.
In 1990, the average league hot dog price was $1.85. Now, it’s $4.40.
Draft beers were $3.04. Now they’re $6.80.
What about the stadiums? 21 new stadiums have opened since 1990. In nearly every single case, a majority of the money came from public financing.
And just in case fans debate the merits of a new stadium, there are just enough historical examples of teams simply picking up and moving that it discourages any serious challenge. (The cases of the Cleveland Browns, Houston Oilers and Baltimore Colts serve as reminders.)
The Result of an Accepted Monopoly
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The reason why the NFL was able to do all of this was simple: It’s a monopoly.
They were established as a “duly adjudicated illegal monopoly” by a jury in 1986 at the culmination of the USFL lawsuit.
(However, because the jury awarded an insulting “$1” to the USFL in damages, the league was predictably crippled financially. This led directly to its collapse. The man who helped to spearhead the USFL’s lawsuit? Donald Trump.)
A jury reached the same verdict about the league in the 1992 suit filed by eight NFL players.
So the market can’t regulate itself because fans have nowhere else to go. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel for the NFL.
And since the NFL is an accepted monopoly (with no true competition), it was only a matter of time before they became skilled at aggressively pursuing extreme profits.
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There are only two ways in which a major sports league like the NFL can be properly regulated despite having a monopoly.
The first is to have fans collectively own the team, as they have in Green Bay. Obviously, normal fans would be better at regulating prices than any billionaire owner.
And the second format is to have some sort of fan protection bureau. It would be an organization with representatives elected by the fans who would carry their voices to the bargaining table between the owners and players.
To give them power, they would carry the ability to veto agreements between the owners and players. Also, they would be given authority to investigate and challenge any price raises for fans (be they ticket prices or anything else) to determine its legitimacy.
Why would the owners or players ever agree to this? Because it’s in their best interest to have fan representation. The NFL was ahead of the curve when they established the revenue sharing and salary cap in 1994.
Many people said those measures would limit their profits, but it didn’t. Instead it improved competition and drove up the average fan’s interest (since more teams had a viable chance at success).
The same is true of fan representation. If prices are forced to remain reasonable, then more fans will go. This perpetuates interest in the league, not simply among the rich but of all classes (and all ages, especially the young).
The NFL needs this also because they can’t continue on their current path. Prices can’t keep going up at the rate they’ve been going. People will lose interest sooner than any league official thinks. It’s a fine line between confidence in your product and hubris, and the NFL is towing it at their own peril.