There are 32 NFL ownership groups. They are outnumbered by the approximately 2,000 players in the NFL, but it's the owners that ultimately hold the power … to a degree.
They own the businesses that employ the players. They have the financial risks on the line and have no desire to see their profit margins cut down, which is why they opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008.
But the biggest group of all affected by the decertification, lockout and potential season-shortening is the fans. Most NFL teams sell out every game, but the viewership numbers are even more staggering than the more than 1.5 million that attend games.
During the regular season, an average of 11.57 million households had at least one television tuned into the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings Monday night game in December, despite a lopsided 40-14 win for the Bears on a frozen field at TCF Bank Stadium. But those numbers paled in comparison to the playoffs. The conference championships between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets and the Green Bay Packers and Bears brought an average of 53.4 million viewers, the most-watched championship Sunday since 1982.
However, even that was just the warm-up for Super Bowl XLV on FOX, which reached a total audience of 162.9 million viewers, making it the most-watched show in U.S. television history.
But don't let the attendance and viewership numbers fool you. The NFL and the NFL Players Association (or trade association or whatever ridiculous incarnation of a union they are pretending to be) fully believe that those fans will return in hoards in 2011. If the millionaires and billionaires didn't believe that, they wouldn't have stalled, delayed and eventually walked away from the bargaining table.
Even more maddening is the polarizing comments after the NFLPA filed for decertification on Friday. Prior to that the two sides had done a decent job of adhering to a mediator's request to keep the bargaining process confidential and out of the media. It was a welcome respite from the pathetic fan-grab that was going on in the months prior to the expiration of the CBA deadline. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith was more like a circus ringmaster in October when his tour of the country brought him to the Twin Cities to meet with Vikings players and stir up the public to a pro-union stance and against the owners.
"Every fan in our country not only loves our game, but wants to see us keep playing football. So what fan in America wouldn't agree with, if there's an economic problem with the collective bargaining agreement, provide the economic information that justifies it. … That's not hard," Smith said in October.
"When I go out to Redskin games, I get the same conversations with every fan. ‘Hey D, if there's a problem with the CBA, why won't they just show you the facts?' Unfortunately my only answer back to them is I don't know."
Really? You want us to believe fans were that engaged in the labor conversation in October? Fans just want football. They don't care if DeMaurice Smith sees the NFL's finances or not. They don't care how hard it is for Smith and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to swallow their bluster and pride to reach an agreement. They just want football in September and free-agent talk in March, not legalese about decertification and antitrust.
This fight over hundreds of millions of dollars isn't about currying favor with the fans. See the forest from the trees from here, suits of the NFL and union. Fans blame both of you and they should. When the league thought they had $4 billion in reserves from television contracts, they had the leverage. Then their ability to tap into that money was struck down in court and suddenly the union felt emboldened to issue ultimatums and threats before pushing the fight from negotiations to litigation.
What ensued was another round of players and agents taking to mass communications to both cry foul on the other.
"Have confidence in & root for De Smith to thwart the owner's lockout. If you want football back, support the players to stop the lockout," tweeted agent Jason Rosenhaus, a statement that was mild compared to some of the more vengeful Twitterverse blasts against the league.
The NFL countered with releases, statements and tweets outlining their offers to the NFLPA and rehashing individual statements of support for the owners. Each side said the other was planning this action all along – finally, a point where both sides were right. They were each ready for the other side's move in a strategic game of high-stakes chess, but neither appeared prepared to seriously deal with the issues in front of them. Consider Smith's statement from October.
"We've told every one of our players this lockout's going to occur," he said while rubbing elbows with the horn-adorned helmets of fans in a St. Paul bar and restaurant. "We learned last week that the league indicated they would no longer pay for players' health insurance and families' insurance in March. From a seriousness standpoint, the players believe this lockout is going to occur."
Does that sound like an executive who believes in negotiating or someone who is more concerned with trying to appeal to the emotions of a labor-friendly gathering while espousing that "a lockout of this game is a lockout of America?"
If the NFL and the players' "trade association" realized that compromise is more important than patronizing fans, then something might get have been achieved before the first deadline of the CBA was approached. Now it's headed to court where a judge will have to act like the parent of two spoiled children and make some harsh declarations.
That's what the labor situation has come to. Since highly paid executives couldn't handle it, the courts need to save the league and association from themselves and bring back football for the hundreds of millions of people who really pay the bills by their game attendance and television viewership.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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