The next level of the NFL lockout is going to start taking hold if things don't end soon – the licensing of NFL players and league trademarks.
Nobody is as protective of their own trademarks as the NFL. It is marketed like few corporate entities and, when they talk about "protecting the shield," it's not just the image of the game but the image of the NFL brand.
The league is fanatical about protecting its trademarks on products sold or pitched by their players. It makes me wonder if the NFL pays Guns N Roses every time "Welcome to the Jungle" blasts in a stadium or that ridiculous Kernkraft 400 song by Zombie Nation that has been inexplicably co-opted by every sporting event in North America? Considering how tightly the NFL holds its own licensing, trademarks and co-branding (non-sponsors have to refer to the Super Bowl as "The Big Game" or some other non-specific reference under penalty of permanent sanction), the coming weeks could be critical for the real moneymaker of the NFL – its ability to brand itself with corporate giants like few other companies this side of Disney.
I did a story for Viking Update Magazine a couple years ago about the myriad of equipment – from Gatorade jugs to defibrillators – packed like sardines between the 30-yard lines on an NFL sideline. Some items had tape over them and, when I was asked why, I was told it wasn't an official sponsor of the NFL, so it can't be seen on the sidelines. Ever! Motorola pays a lot of money to be seen on the headsets of NFL coaches and seeing their brand name is no coincidence.
On the flip side, the NFL guards its own trademarks aggressively. Peyton Manning can endorse any product he wants to but, if it isn't an official NFL sponsor, you won't see him wearing his familiar blue and white No. 18. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco is the only current NFL player I've seen doing a commercial since the lockout wearing a uniform. Fortunately, it's a promotion to eat a lot of pistachios and his uniform is black and neon green – colors never even remotely considered for an NFL team. Aside from Ochopistachio, the only other NFL player I've seen the last couple of months is Brett Favre pushing Wrangler jeans – Favre is lockout-proof.
But, as the current lockout drags on, we're getting to the point where the media giants in New York start the annual routine of pimping the NFL and attaching their products to the annual growing wave of interest leading up to the start of a new NFL season.
With no game to promote, you won't see Troy Polamalu talking up his luxurious Head and Shoulders mane of hair – at least not wearing a Steelers jersey. Typically, off-field things like United Way photo shoots are going to be aired during the season – from Manning throwing passes to kids to Arthur Blank showing no discernable understanding of how to groove to a rap song (Pinocchio said "he's a little too wooden"). Will those spots that help promote a very worthwhile charitable be put on hold?
In the big picture of things, the delays in reaching a new collective bargaining agreement haven't really hurt those already in the league. Players under veteran contracts that don't have workout bonuses effectively don't get paid until Week 1 of the regular season. They won't feel the pinch until September at the earliest.
It's harder to say with owners. Like most corporations, they don't feel obligated to let the unwashed masses examine their books with mustard-stained fingers. They're signing contracts and cutting deals throughout the year. One can only imagine that those who are looking to pay for the privilege of co-branding with the NFL are going to want some sort of certainty that their investment will be worth it.
There have been a lot of moments of concern for the millions of football fans throughout the world that the "game" of the NFL won't be played in 2011 – or will be forced into some truncated version when the knot of the rope both sides are pulling on gets so tight it snaps. But, for the "business" of football, we're just entering the danger zone.
If something doesn't get done soon, the economic dominoes will start to fall. With the NFL facing the first ripple of advertising for the 2011 season – which annually begins about the time the NBA and NHL seasons end and the focus comes to the baseball pennant races– those seeds may have to wait to be planted.
It can be argued that nobody in the hierarchy of either side in the current dispute has lost much … yet. Free agency will happen. Those players looking to cash in on the open market bidding wars will get their signing bonuses and guaranteed money … eventually.
The owners aren't living check to check like other professional leagues – even Major League Baseball had to take over the Dodgers due to sketchy financing with the owner. The NBA and NHL are leagues of financial haves and have nots – some are very prosperous and just as many struggle badly to meet the bottom line. The NFL isn't in that boat. Almost everybody has their fat stacks of cash.
What may be the best thing going for the current labor impasse is that we're getting to the point on the calendar when talk about the NFL begins. Your local bar owner gets the home-team schedule from his beer distributors to plaster up on the wall. The magazine rack at the grocery store slowly fills up with football-related publications. Like a changing of the seasons, what John Randle recently called the "long winter for fans," is about to sprout into the anticipation of the season. Not just for fans that have been increasingly frustrated and concerned for last few months, but the corporate fat cats that cause luxury boxes to be one of the first necessities of any new stadium.
The face-painters of the NFL universe have been in full "the sky is falling!" panic mode since March. In the ensuing months, as the sports networks have counted the days of the lockout like news media have done with hostage crises over the years, the angst among casual fans has increased. We are now approaching the point where the guys who write out the big checks that create billions of dollars for the owners are going to start asking for return on their dollar.
In a fight between people in two tax brackets – high and really high – it may only be when their corporate partners, most of whom have dealt with labor unrest themselves in one form or another, start raising their deep-pocketed opinions that legitimate progress will take place.
That time is coming. Can the flagship corporate sponsors provide the push needed to get this particular sports labor impasse solved? The other three major sports have legitimate grievances between franchises, where some are overly wealthy while others try to meet a bottom line. In corporate America, the NFL is by far the safest advertising bet. They're strong and getting stronger in a fragile economy. Forced to go elsewhere, the corporate types will shift their ad dollars. They'll have no choice. If they find our their bang for the buck is just as well suited by cutting back on big-time advertising, that will perk the ears of both sides in the current labor struggle.
Money talks. When the big boys that pay millions for a 30-second spot on the Super Bowl start barking, it may be time for the big dogs to come out from under the porch and settle this thing.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Can corporate America apply lockout pressure?
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