NFL lockout: what about the fans?

Now that negotiations between the National Football League (NFL) franchise owners and the players’ union in the USA have broken down, resulting in a lockout that threatens the 2011 season, only the lawyers seem sure to win.

In a move which is bewildering to outsiders, the players’ union has disbanded, become a trade association and filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against their employers.  Players are asking for more money, a reduction in training days (to reduce the risk of injury) and more compensation in the event of serious injury.  It is effectively an old-fashioned industrial dispute relating to pay and conditions between employees and management.

In common with other industrial disputes, both sides claim the moral high ground. The NFL claims that “the union left a very good deal on the table”. Meanwhile the players accuse the 32 NFL teams of “a unilaterally imposed set of anticompetitive restrictions on player movement, free agency and competitive market freedom”.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake at the moment but if the 2011 season does not take place the NFL’s $9bn in annual revenue could be lost.

One of the reasons that club owners are willing to risk a cancelled season is because the value of their profitable franchises has been rising year on year. The players stand to lose their season’s wages but they seem prepared to hold out in the hope of a better agreement. The biggest losers would be the fans and the young players who will miss the chance of getting signed. TV broadcasters and the economic activity linked to match days would also be adversely affected.

Considering that about half of the American public watched Super Bowl XLV on 6 February, it is unfortunate that the fans don’t have any direct say in the dispute. ESPN writer Howard Bryant makes the point that the world could carry on without the NFL and “the only message sports leagues understand is the message that the public will pay to watch something else”.

Both sides are willing to gamble that the public will forgive them when the dispute is finally settled. Judging from the evidence of previous lockouts in American sports (including the whole NHL season in 2004-5), fans tend to apportion more blame to players than owners. While the sport involved is damaged, recovery follows fairly quickly afterwards.

It is still possible that the NFL and players will reach a settlement in time for the pre-season preparations to take place. Until that happens it is the lawyers who look best placed to benefit.

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