The NFL is a force like no other. What other sport or entertainment diversion could prove so absorbing simply by taking its product away from consumers? While fans and media grumble about the sheer greed of the NFL's labor process, the league itself has grown in relevance simply by threatening to go away.
Talk about some great marketing. Instead of howling at the outrage involved in skyrocketing ticket prices and player salaries, we all point to a trepid future without NFL Sundays.
As if such a thing would ever happen.
While it's hard to believe now, the lockout was probably not the worst thing that could happen to the league. In fact, it's hard to imagine a better outcome for the league.
Everybody Gets Paid
The entire labor process has been nothing but exhaustive to most fans. In many ways, the clichéd mantra of "millionaires vs. billionaires" reflects some truth, although each side certainly has valid points in their favor. Yet this process was completely necessary for the future health of the game, which filters through the owners' respective investment portfolio, siphons off to the players and eventually trickles down to the fans.
And while the entire labor and litigation scene is ugly, it's also truly essential. If anything, the lockout reaffirms the effectiveness of the NFL's revenue sharing system. Although much of the lockout revolved around both sides haggling over the fringes of the league's traditional "60/40" split, the mere idea that this system exists and can be the basis for argument suggests that the entire league has already won. Throw in a concession to the owners regarding escalating rookie salary costs and some pension and health care lip service to retired players, and harmony reigns for the next five to six years.
Most importantly, unlike the NBA, where the lack of a gate receipt sharing system is driving teams to bankruptcy, or the NHL, where the installation of a salary cap cost the league an entire season, professional football's foundation was laid some 40 years ago. Just imagine the prospects of an industry whose total revenue could reach close to 15 billion dollars by the close of the decade. Without already having a revenue sharing system and salary cap in place, the owners would be reaching for more than a billion dollars "off the top" and the only football played in the fall would be a Canadian variety.
With all the current talk focusing on revenue splits and antitrust litigation, the most pressing issue in the NFL is the one that hasn't been discussed for about half a year. Since astronomical dollar amounts are being thrown around, absolutely no one is paying attention to the damaging costs associated with player's brain trauma.
In 2010, there was a rise in violent, on-field collisions – or at least a dramatic tilt in television replays of these hits – that completely saturated the moralistic media airwaves. With the recent surge in research devoted to the long-term effects of concussions on athletes, the NFL is treading some tenuous waters. The sheer irony of a league that generates billions of dollars in revenue from violent human collisions, while trying to feign concern over the health of its players is beyond hypocritical.
Yet, when and if the labor dispute is resolved, such a thought will be completely removed from the minds of everyone associated with the league. The return of football, including a furious free agency run, will be the heavenly salve fans have been waiting months to receive. However, when everything returns to balance, the game itself will continue to creep toward a neutered future. The financials will be set, yet the on-field product will suffer as outside scientific and moralistic pressures will combine to change football into an elaborate game of two-hand touch.
But all that is a story for another time.
Setting the Pace
To bring this discussion back to our Browns, the popular narrative regarding the team is that 2011 is not the best time to rebuild yet again. Since the team is installing a rookie head coach, along with new offensive and defensive systems – in the shortest window possible – the prospects of a surprise Browns' emergence in 2011 are slim. In short, the lockout didn't do any favors for an organization that seemingly enjoyed some early offseason momentum.
However, the Browns won't be the only team experiencing the effects of such ill timing. Currently, there could be upwards of five to six teams that will start rookie quarterbacks in 2011. Add in another few new head coaches around the league and the Browns will have some company in essentially starting from scratch.
Or perhaps "clawing" is a better term there.
Regardless of any team's overall continuity, the lack of an offseason worth of preparation and rushed versions of free agency and training camp will result in some of the ugliest, yet most competitive football seen in years. Throw in a reliance on rookie starters in some cases – like the Browns – and the prospects of another slow start become destiny. Those items should contribute to a league-wide trend of sloppy football. However, in the Browns' case, the situation is further complicated by the installation of two new playbooks.
Yet, the momentum that slipped away a few months ago should ultimately return. With all teams facing a similar predicament, parity will be a major component of the 2011 season. It just might take a little longer than most Browns' fans would prefer. In reality, we could be facing another 2009-esque year, where three months of misery are rewarded by an electric finish and hope for the future.
Selling the Goods
In the end, everyone associated with the NFL will get what they want. The decertified NFLPA will be relieved that they survived months of negotiations without cracking. Taking their modest gains, the players will crow on Twitter while the owners will revel in the prospects of the league's revenue tripling in size before the next round of labor talks.
And of course the fans will return. Despite what anyone is saying now, or has said in the past – the fans will return. If not to the stadiums, then to the television networks, who will again reign supreme after collecting extraordinary sums of money from desperate droves of advertisers.
And all the while, the NFL will have once again proven itself irreplaceable.
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