NFL lockout expected to have little effect on sport’s popularity

The National Football League’s offseason of labor unrest neared its end Thursday evening when the league’s owners approved a 10-year collective bargaining agreement and conditionally lifted their four-month lockout of the league’s 2,000 players.

The owners said team facilities would re-open this weekend and training camps and free agency would begin next week — if the players follow suit and ratify the labor deal as well.

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NFL owners voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a tentative 10-year agreement to end the lockout, pending player approval. (July 21)

NFL owners voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a tentative 10-year agreement to end the lockout, pending player approval. (July 21)

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NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith updated reporters on talks to end the lockout Thursday afternoon, saying players are discussing the possibility of recertifying as a union. (July 21)

NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith updated reporters on talks to end the lockout Thursday afternoon, saying players are discussing the possibility of recertifying as a union. (July 21)

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The 10-year labor deal, which still must be approved by a newly re-certified players union, would split the league’s estimated $9.3 billion in annual revenues fairly evenly. Players would receive just less than a 50 percent share — slightly less than under the previous arrangement — while owners would no longer take a portion up front.

The deal would set new limits on offseason practices, establish a more modest rookie wage system and postpone dealing with ownership’s controversial proposal of an expanded 18-game schedule.

Player representatives spoke by conference call Thursday night to review the owners’ actions but delayed taking a vote. Several representatives and leaders of the NFL Players Association reacted testily to the way the owners passed their resolution, and said the players’ approval of the deal was far from certain.

New Orleans Saints representative Heath Evans, one of the more vocal players, wrote on Twitter that owners had included provisions “that were NEVER agreed” upon.

How rank-and-file players will respond remained unclear, although many have been eager to get back to work.

After months of rancor, with players barred from entering their training facilities and fantasy football draft guides put on indefinite hold, the sides have reached agreement on the major economic issues and the conflict seemed to be nearing its end. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke confidently of the settlement while addressing media in the Atlanta area, where the owners of the league’s 32 franchises had voted.

The commissioner called the new labor deal “an outstanding agreement” that will maintain “the competitive balance of the league,” and he attempted to mend fences with frustrated fans.

“I understand their frustration,” he said, “and I hope they understand that we were working hard to get that agreement that is going to secure the game of football for the future.”

While the league’s offseason was filled with courtroom battles, curbside news conferences and stern pronouncements, it was increasingly likely no regular season games will be missed and no fundamental changes will be made to the league’s schedule.

The NFL, sports analysts said, will immediately settle back into its role as the country’s most popular sports organization.

“Let’s face it: These were not five critical months to [the league],” said David Carter, the executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. “There’ll be no fewer people painting their faces, no fewer people tailgating, no falloff in attendance or in the attention and notoriety for the league. No barbecues have been canceled, no gameday activities at your favorite tavern have been postponed. None of those important touchpoints for fans have been compromised.”

Legal drama aside, the NFL will thus resume cruising at an altitude well above the turbulence that has rocked the other major U.S. pro leagues in recent years. Major League Baseball’s strike cost the sport eight months and the 1994 World Series, damage that took years to erase. The National Basketball Association’s labor unrest led to a shortened 1998-99 season, and the league is now in a lockout of its own that threatens the upcoming campaign. A lockout in the National Hockey League canceled the entire 2004-05 season and led to an overhaul of that sport’s financial model.

And yet the NFL — which has not missed regular season games because of labor problems since 1987 — emerged relatively unscathed yet again.

“The NFL is too big, too important, too lucrative for this to really affect anybody,” said Bob Dorfman, an advertising executive who analyzes the endorsement potential of athletes for the Sports Marketers’ Scouting Report. “Compare it to the NBA, where losing games could really have a serious effect on fans, on sponsors, where things are maybe a little more tenuous. The overall health of the NFL, the broadcast contracts and power that the ratings have; it’s just such a strong commodity that it’s too big a juggernaut to be affected by this.”

Which is not to say the rhetoric didn’t escalate into nastiness as players and owners jockeyed over dividing their spoils. Two prominent players — Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White — accused Goodell of running a dictatorship in recent days. The league charged that the decertification of the players’ union was “a sham,” while a lawyer on the players side accused one of his NFL counterparts of lying to the public.

Fans, too, were occasionally exercised, especially when facing deadlines for paying ticket invoices.

“Why should I the fan be held accountable for my agreement with the team and have to pay my dues now when they’re not doing the same for their players?” asked Redskins season-ticket holder Ben Sydnor, who negotiated with the club to defer his payments as the lockout dragged on. “I’m sure the experience I had is somewhat similar to what a fan of the Eagles or the Cowboys had: that [the clubs are] just trying to get their money sooner so they can use it to make more money.”

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, issued a warning that his state could lose $40 million in tax revenues if the entire 2011 season were canceled.

College players were drafted, only to be prohibited from speaking to their new bosses, while starting wide receivers took to coaching youth soccer or riding bulls. Owners cautioned they could alienate their customers, with Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots telling reporters that the players and owners would “hurt ourselves collectively in the eyes of our fans” if the squabbling continued.

And yet as the focus likely will soon turn from revenue distribution to an expected frenzy of free agent transactions, it’s not hard to envision a quick return to business as usual.

Eugene Profit, a former NFL cornerback and the founder of Silver Spring’s Profit Investment Management, delayed the payments for his firm’s suite at FedEx Field during the labor uncertainty. But now?

“I’ll be more than happy to write the check,” he said Thursday. “If the season goes off without a hitch, I think the fans forget it. The fans are ready to watch football.”

 
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