There were times during the 4 1 / 2-month NFL lockout when it seemed the differences between the league and players were immense. There were bleak moments when some in the sport feared the shutdown could stretch into the season and threaten to halt pro football’s long-running winning streak of prosperity and popularity.
But in the end, the sport’s first work stoppage since 1987 ended with only one preseason game, the Hall of Fame Game, canceled and the regular season intact. The league and the players’ union ensured a decade of labor peace with a 10-year collective bargaining agreement and, with the season about to begin, the sport is well positioned to build on its success, according to industry analysts.
“Largely I think it’s a case of no harm, no foul,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “The Hall of Fame lost revenue for the game that was canceled. . . [but] I don’t think fans, the networks or advertisers feel they’ve been materially harmed. It’s been pretty easy for the NFL to get people back to a sense of business as usual.”
There seems to have been little fan backlash about the lockout since it ended and gave way almost immediately to a whirlwind of free agent activity and the opening of teams’ training camps.
Preseason television ratings have been strong, holding steady with more viewers than other sports generate during their regular seasons. NFL officials are projecting that regular season attendance will be up slightly from last season. The league is expecting a similar number of local TV blackouts to last season’s total of 26 games. The league’s national sponsorships are up about 15 percent from last year, and video traffic on the NFL’s Web site is up 40 percent. Ratings for the league-owned NFL Network are up 36 percent.
Fans quickly turned their attention back to story lines such as the new kickoff rules, the Philadelphia Eagles’ free agent shopping spree and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning’s bid to return from neck surgery.
“There may have been a little bit of lost momentum,” said George Atallah, the union’s assistant executive director of external affairs. “But now that we have a 10-year agreement, we’ve established just the opposite. We’ve picked it right back up.”
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft issued a public apology to fans after the new labor deal was struck. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said then that there was work to be done for the league to make amends.
“We think that through a 10-year agreement here we’ve secured the future of the game to ensure that pledge to bring great football to our fans,” Goodell said. “I think we have some work to do, though, to make sure that they understand we are sorry for the frustration that we put them through over the last six months. . . . I think we have to make sure that we understand that our bond with our fans is the primary issue that all of us have to keep focused on.”
Each side could point to gains secured in certain aspects of the labor deal. Team owners won an economic system that gives players an average of at least 47 percent of the sport’s burgeoning revenue, compared to the approximately 50 percent they were getting previously. The owners also installed a rookie pay system designed to curb the amount of guaranteed money in the contracts of first-round draft picks. The funds were diverted to veteran players.
There are player-friendly provisions as well, including new spending minimums for the teams within the salary cap system. There is a $620 million “legacy fund” for retired players. The league dropped its proposal to lengthen the season from 16 to 18 games when players objected. The deal contains reductions in teams’ offseason workouts and restrictions on hitting in practices during training camp and the regular season.
With labor peace assured, the sport’s leaders can move on to new ventures in an effort to bolster revenues. Efforts to place a franchise or two in Los Angeles are likely to intensify. Some on the owners’ side have not abandoned hopes that the players eventually will agree to an 18-game season. Goodell said soon after the labor deal was signed that the league would explore the possibility of selling a new package of Thursday night games in the first half of the season to a TV network.
“Any short-term pain [from the lockout] is going to be trumped many times over. . . . In terms of delivering big audiences to their advertisers, there’s no reason to believe anything that has happened with the labor situation will harm that,” Carter said.
In fact, Carter said the NFL’s biggest financial obstacle at this point isn’t fallout from the offseason shutdown but the condition of the national economy.
“Those people who need to stand down, to keep their wallets in their pockets, that’s most likely from the economy, not due to any effects of the lockout,” Carter said.
One of the most promising signs for the NFL’s long-term growth was the way that Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the players’ union’s executive director, came to work in concert to resolve troublesome issues. They oversaw a dispute that gave the NFL its first taste of labor strife in more than two decades. But they eventually found a way to minimize the economic damage and may have taken a first step toward forming the kind of smooth working relationship once enjoyed by Gene Upshaw, the union’s late executive director, and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
“I’m not sure that any two people have ever come together in a more compressed, public, interesting time than Roger and I,” Smith said soon after the deal was completed. “But I’m proud to say that our relationship has grown. I can tell you that even up to the last minute. . . it required both of us coming together, taking stock of what’s important [to] get the job done.”
Kraft said then: “The commissioner has to deal with 32 tough and demanding owners, and he’s been able to keep that balance. DeMaurice Smith has come in and he’s managing 1,900 players, a bunch of different professionals. It’s a new CBA with tricky language and he was able to keep those things going and come up with an agreement that he and Roger did together with their [negotiating] teams.”
The focus is back to on-the-field developments, with some analysts saying those teams with new head coaches or rookie quarterbacks will be hurt the most by an offseason that didn’t include the usual practice time. Teams were assembled on the run after the lockout, with hundreds of free agent players scurrying to find jobs and then waiting for the final approval of the labor deal before they could practice. But Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, a member of the union’s executive committee, said during training camp that he expects the quality of play to be normal.
“I’m pretty sure Week 1 is going to be good football,” Foxworth said. “I’ll be proud of the product we put out.”