For those of us who remember the pain of football-less autumns in the 1980’s, the prospect of another September sans gridiron action is unthinkable to say the least. The NFL has grown remarkably strong over the last few decades, and in fact its this unparalleled growth that should save the season in the end.
Pete Rozell (former NFL Commissioner) was once criticized during an interview with the immortal Howard Cosell, for taking “a non-event” (NFL Draft) and turning it into a ‘made for television’ one. And with the recent proliferation of cable television and the ESPN network, he was right. Cosell would not be surprised to see the draft decades later turn into a three-day, prime-time event that spins the first round into a three-hour drama filled with character development and all.
But it’s not only the draft that captures the NFL fan’s offseason attention; the first day of free agency is equally reported in heavy numbers. The growth of fantasy football fed by the increased power of personal computers has fans dangling on every word that is mentioned from March until July.
This is in stark contrast to how it was in the 80’s, the last time there was a labor issue, when fans of football pretty much read the paper the day after the draft to see which players their favorite teams picked, and then assessed the impact they thought those players would make. If the NFL had boycotted any event in March of 1982, it’s doubtful anyone would have lifted a finger to report it.
Instead players crossed the field for the four preseason games and the first two of the regular season and shook hands just before kickoff to show their solidarity. Then in week three, they were gone. The impact was felt hard, it was dramatic.
The players and owners can hold their political agendas to our throats in 2011 only because the offseason in the NFL has become a sort of second season. A time of “all the other stuff” that football fans crave and enjoy, and are missing right now as we speak.
It’s this suffocation imposed on us that will probably be the saving grace for actual ‘on the field’ action later in August or September. It’s safe to say the level of interest the casual football fan had for a preseason game in 1982 is equal to what today’s fantasy team owner has for free agency, the draft, and other offseason events. OTA’s are reported in June with the same press coverage that training camp or maybe even preseason games garnered back then.
These facts alone should be what gives the owners and players ammunition to prevent the unthinkable from happening, the actual shutting down of football in autumn. The National Football Leauge is a big business — the NFL minimum for a place kicker is about the same salary pro-bowl quarterbacks made the last time we took strike talk seriously.
Missing OTAs is dangerous as the loss of training camp would give serious advantages and disadvantages to some teams. Dip into preseason action, and three to four losses wouldn’t be unthinkable for some teams with new coaching staffs to have to suffer as a result. The NFL can’t handle that much unfairness to its competitive nature, and it shouldn’t have to. The loss of March-June should be enough to get the two sides working to ensure nothing from July on is missed.