If NFL lockout leaves Sundays without games, could NASCAR or the NHL capitalize?

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, addresses members of the media after it was announced that a seven-day extension of the current CBA agreement has been reached. (March 4)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 12:07 AM

The thought of tailgate-free Sundays and aimless channel surfing might distress diehard National Football League fans, but not everyone stands to suffer should the league's labor dispute lead to the cancellation of games in the fall.

As owners and players try to stave off a lengthy work stoppage and fans brace for the possible disruption of their long-held Sunday traditions, the sports leagues that for years have been bruised by competition with the powerhouse NFL stand ready to leap onto a vacated stage.

"It does help everyone else," said Richard C. Powers, a sports marketing professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "It increases the opportunity for any sports that overlap with the NFL to showcase their products."

What's unclear is the extent to which college football , the National Hockey League , NASCAR and other entities whose seasons run through the fall would benefit should there be a significant stretch of NFL-free Sundays and Monday nights for the first time since the 1982 strike, when the season was cut from 16 to nine games.

On Friday, the NFL's owners and players agreed to extend negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement by a week .

The NFL's regular-season ratings generally rival or exceed those of World Series games and often quadruple NASCAR's race afternoons. With the NFL an imposing giant among U.S. sports, there is no obvious No. 2 to pick up its disoriented fans.

"If football were to go away, I don't think interest pours into another sport," said Robert Boland, a professor of sports business who specializes in antitrust law and collective bargaining at New York University. "I think it diffuses rather than splashes. I think it goes in a million places rather than one. That's why it will be hard for somebody to capitalize on it."

The boost to NFL competitors will be "mixed" said Rick Horrow, a visiting expert on sports law at Harvard Law School. And "it will be weighed against the malaise that may set in for the general fan, who may become tired in general" of the labor battles between millionaire players and billionaire owners, he said.

Still, experts say, leagues are salivating at the chance to showcase their events outside the enormous shadow of the NFL. Some say baseball's sagging postseason ratings would likely see the greatest bump, especially if the National Basketball Association's labor issues also result in a work stoppage. The NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires this summer.

Ratings for two of the past three World Series (the Giants-Rangers in 2010 and Phillies-Rays in 2008) reached historic lows, about 50 percent below what was typical throughout the 1990s. And because playoff schedules are not yet set, Major League Baseball could target vacant Sunday afternoons for key games.

Others say college football would benefit most, as fans desperate for a fix shift their attention to Saturdays, or opportunistic schools or conferences move their games to Sunday afternoons. During the 1982 strike, the networks aired some Division III contests.

"The importance now shifts to college football," said Wayne McDonnell, Jr., a former Madison Square Garden executive and sports management professor at New York University. "Nothing is going to replace the NFL, but college football is pretty close . . . I wouldn't be a bit surprised, if the NFL can't get its act together, for college football to try to take advantage in a lot of ways."

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