The NFL just completed a season in which its games were watched by an average of 17.9 million viewers – per game. In the fall ratings, 19 of the 20 most-watched shows on television were NFL games. Not just sports shows, but shows overall.
Everyone seems to be watching … and yet no one seems to be really paying attention. Fans may pay attention to the product on the field when they are in the stadiums and on their couches joining the millions viewing, but I still don't sense an urgency among the fan base to the labor negotiations – or lack thereof.
Instead, we seem destined to head toward the offseason without a labor agreement in place. Meanwhile, the NFL and the NFL Players Association are busy trying to sway the public to each of their sides by accusing the other. Does it matter which side the fans are on? How about spending more time trying to find the bargaining table than trying to tip it over on the other side?
Back and forth the two sides go, each accusing the other like it is some sort of political campaign trying to curry the "lesser of two evils" vote, but the only votes that matters in this debate are those of the union representation and NFL owners. Still, the NFLPA thought it needed a tour of NFL cities to try to engender support during the football season. Then it conducted a conference call last week. The NFL responded by putting long-time labor lawyer Bob Batterman on an interview with the Associated Press.
Each side now seems to be looking for the hot-button quote from the other to throw in front of the public. Batterman provided one such opportunity.
"The players may not want a lockout. I believe the union leadership and counsel want a lockout. Their strategy is to try and stop us from exercising our federally protected right to lock out. It is a perfectly legitimate legal, economic weapon in collective bargaining," he told the Associated Press.
The union wants to promote Batterman as the bad guy, the one that wants to lock out players, so that was Batterman's response, along with him defending his career of labor negotiations.
"Of those many hundreds (of negotiations), I have had literally a handful of strikes, and as best as I can determine, two or three lockouts," Batterman said. "All of the rest have been successfully and quietly negotiated peacefully. I am successful at what I do because I am a deal-maker, not a lockout artist. I make a very good living, and I am very successful, because I avoid problems. I don't create confrontations."
In this case, it appears unavoidable. The union seems intent on playing the role of the oppressed worker. For most of the past year, the league and the owners, who voted to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2008, essentially ignored the union's darts. But as the start of the new league year approaches on March 4, both sides are digging in, pulling on the tug-of-war rope and spitting on the other side.
Meanwhile, there are legitimate points to negotiate: The percentage of revenues that should be paid to players, health-insurance benefits, long-term care of alumni who have become hardship cases because of their playing career, and the length of season (the owners want 18 regular-season games and two preseason games and the players want to keep 16 regular-season games).
The rhetoric is deep and the two sides can't even agree on the state of negotiations or when the last session was really held. For now, there are no official bargaining sessions in sight.
Even while all of this is going on, the viewership numbers support the popularity of America's favorite spectator sport. All total, the 2010 regular season reached 207.7 million unique viewers, according to The Nielsen Company, and four of the league's five television partners – FOX, NBC, ESPN and NFL Network – had their most watched NFL regular season ever, and CBS had its best season in two decades.
Maybe that's why ESPN is expected to sign a deal with the NFL that will average close to $2 billion per year over the next eight or nine years to broadcast Monday Night Football.
The numbers are staggering and the stakes are legendary. The NFL is nearly a $9 billion a year entity. Money breeds greed, but in order for the popularity to continue to escalate, both sides had better get comfortable and start negotiating. The start of the 2011 league year is less than 50 days away and labor peace seems closer to 50 weeks away.
It's time the NFL and its players union take a cue from the rules against players using social media during and surrounding game time. Quit the shallow, public rhetoric you think is helping your case and start negotiating. More than a thousand players, hundreds of draft picks, thousands of team and league employees and 200 million fans are waiting.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Sunday slant: Zip it, sit down and negotiate
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