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Punting Into the Storm

March 1, 2011

It’s three days to lockout for the NFL.  This really is just an arbitrary date to most who are following the story of the lockout, since most people don’t get all that interested in the NFL until about July anyway.  But as Ann Killion writes today at SI.com, it’s significant for the reaction it will start to generate in the faithful.

The looming lockout — three days away and counting as of Tuesday morning — would interrupt a period of skyrocketing growth and popularity for the NFL.

“It’s the incredible platinum standard of all the leagues,” said Andy Dolich, a longtime sports marketing guru who previously worked for the San Francisco 49ers. “Every indicator is an arrow pointing straight up.”

But no one really knows what will happen if the owners choose to interrupt that upward trajectory by locking out players and entering a prolonged, uncertain work stoppage. Or if the players’ union chooses to decertify and pursue antitrust action against the league, pushing the dispute into federal court.

The more die-hard fans are actually the ones at risk right now.  Those of us (and I include myself) that look at NFL news nearly every day of the year and follow the combine, draft, free-agency, and all the other fun of the league will likely be the ones who first lose interest when all the news turns to labor disputes.  If you thought that Wisconsin was boring all of us, then try going 10-100x on the salaries and hearing two sets of well-paid constituencies argue about being involved in a game many would be jealous to play.  I’m not denegrating any of the issues, I’m just saying that most normal people don’t get the arguments in what seems to be an entertainment industry with no losers.

The bigger loss of credibility, to my mind, still is to come.  If this labor dispute continues into the pre-season, there’s a huge industry associated with the NFL — fantasy football — that had turned many casual fans into true believers.  The loss of that rooting interest will be far, far more damaging than the loss of the actual games and TV.  For many, a year off from fantasy football means that it’s gone for a long time, and that will take away the viewership and interest that has started to move the league into the stratusphere.

I still believe that someone on the players’ and owners’ sides will figure out the risk and work to avert this before it gets too out of hand.  But as we’ve seen with labor disputes, it gets progressively harder to back out of the cement when you’ve poured it around your legs.  Be careful where you take your stand, NFL…

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