The year’s most predictable bit of sports news finally happened Friday, March 11, when negotiations between National Football League owners and players on a new collective bargaining agreement came to a complete halt and the NFL fell into its own version of purgatory. Players decertified their union on Friday and filed an antitrust suit against the owners, who locked players out on Saturday, March 12.
No more talks are expected to take place before a hearing is held in federal court in Minnesota Wednesday, April 6 to determine whether or not the lockout is valid. If Judge Susan Nelson rules in favor of the players, the league will likely reopen business under the 2010 rules (i.e. no salary cap). If she rules in favor of the owners, the lockout will likely drag on for months.
One thing appears certain, though: Whenever football resumes, it’ll be the owners, not the players, who have to work their way back into the good graces of fans. A Bloomberg poll conducted earlier this month revealed that 43 percent of Americans who followed the NFL sided with the players as opposed to just 20 percent siding with the owners.
This is a dramatic departure from previous work stoppages in American professional sports, in which fans tended to view the players as the greedier party. But with more attention being paid to the dangers incurred and lifelong ailments suffered by NFL players — according to a study by Scripps-Howard in 2006, one of every 69 football players born in 1955 was already dead — fans have grown more sympathetic to those on the gridiron.
“You hear a lot of people talking about how almost spoiled these owners are by the amount of money that they make and they would really like to see them open up the books to see what they really make,” Jake Conaway, the general manager of Wanamaker Ticket Office in Philadelphia, told TicketNews. “In all fairness, I think the players have a leg to stand on. [Owners] want them to play extra games and they want to increase revenue and they don’t want to pay them any more money.”
Conaway said he hasn’t sensed the lockout affecting his business, largely because even football-mad fans in Philadelphia are already focused on the defending NL East champion Phillies, but that he expects NFL tickets to sell as briskly as usual as long as an agreement is reached in time to play the full season. The NFL announced in December it would refund ticket-holders for any games that are not played in 2011.
“I don’t think it’s going to have that much of an impact,” Conaway said. “If they [are locked out] for three or four games throughout the season, yeah, I think at that point there’s going to be some repercussions. But ultimately, if they figure it out before the season starts, I think we’ll be fine.
“I think that ultimately, somebody’s going to have to make a move, because there’s too much money involved just to shut down the entire season.”
Conaway believes sympathy for the players is just one reason NFL ticket sales are likely to be unaffected no matter how long the lockout lasts. “People love sports, especially football,” Conaway said. “In the United States, that’s like soccer in Europe. It’s hard not to watch.”