NFL labor talks continue in Washington this week, where there is suddenly optimism that a lockout might be avoided. Yet, the NFL and NFL Players Association continue to shut fans out of the talks despite our repeated requests that fans have representation in the room. It is important that a deal gets done, but it should be one that is not just in the best interests of owners and players, but also of fans.
As SportsFans.org continues to point out, fans and taxpayers have spent over $6.5 billion on NFL stadiums. We have transformed our urban centers into sporting zones because we were promised NFL games would provide an economic lift to our cities. But since the NFL doesn't feel that fans should have their own representatives and the NFLPA is unwilling to respond, it's up to us to let them know what we would like to see in a new collective bargaining agreement.
Last week, we asked sports fans everywhere to offer their best suggestions for what the future NFL labor agreement -- assuming they are eventually able to reach one -- should include. Fans have spoken, and so we are proposing three key provisions we would like to see worked into the new agreement. We believe these changes will be for the benefit of fans everywhere and will lead to better treatment of fans of every team.
Eliminate the Blackout Rule
One of the most galling business practices of the NFL is its insistence on blacking out local television broadcasts of games that aren't sold out. In 2010, the NFL blacked out 26 games, up from 2009, when it blacked out 22 games.
Blackouts happen despite the fact that virtually every stadium has received public subsidies to some degree. In effect, the fans who are most punished are the ones who kicked in their tax dollars to pay for their team to have a new (or newly refurbished) home but who cannot afford to attend games.
Every Buccaneers game was blacked out in the Tampa Bay area in 2010, even though the city entirely financed the $168.5 million Raymond James Stadium after Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer threatened to move the team if they didn't. Tampa Bay already showed its commitment to the Bucs.
The only reason the blackout rule continues is because of the greed of a few individual owners. They are still making plenty of money off of the television contracts, but they want every last dollar from the local community.
Further, the rule is counterproductive. What better way to assure yourself of fewer customers in the future than to shut them out from half the games now? Will the children of today be fans in the future if they cannot watch their teams on television now?
It should be noted that we, the people, via Congress, grant the NFL antitrust exemption when it comes to negotiating broadcast television contracts. This has allowed the NFL to make billions of dollars. If the NFL (and its players) are unwilling to work with fans to end blackouts in any stadium that has received public subsidies, Congress should reconsider this antitrust exemption.
Allow Public Ownership of Teams
Since 1960, NFL rules have prevented public ownership of any teams other than the Green Bay Packers. Specifically, the rules state: "Charitable organizations and/or corporations not organized for profit and not now a member of the league may not hold membership in the National Football League." Of course, the NFL's rules are not actual law and states could actually seek to keep a team threatening relocation in town by using eminent domain. (This is what led the Baltimore Colts in 1984 to hurriedly pack everything into moving fans and rush to their new home in Indianapolis. By the time the state had passed legislation to seize the Colts, there was nothing left to seize.)
Imagine if the people of Minnesota could buy shares in the Minnesota Vikings to keep them in the state. As it is, their only hope now to hold onto the Vikings is to have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes for a new stadium. Otherwise, owner Zygi Wilf may move them to Los Angeles. Keep in mind that Minnesota is $6 billion in debt.
Do you really think hundreds of thousands of Vikings faithful wouldn't jump at the chance to buy shares in the Vikings to keep the team in town? Wilf can own a new team in Los Angeles. Minnesota can keep the Vikings and a share of the profits can go back into the community.
Stadium Financing = Public Ownership
Without a doubt, sports stadiums are a terrible use of public money. Economists, from the most conservative to the most liberal, agree that they provide a very low return - if any - on investment. Yet, cities around the country build new stadiums (or renovate old ones) because owners threaten to move the team to a new city if they don't get their way. The gravy train has to stop.
If a team wants a new stadium, it needs to build one on its own dime. If a team cannot afford a new stadium and has to turn to the public for financing, the public should receive a stake in the team equal to what it spent on the stadium.
Some might say that cities, themselves, vote for these new stadiums and thus have only themselves to blame if owners take advantage of them. Stadium funding proposals are usually initially very unpopular and only after voters are subjected to repeated threats of team relocation and are bombarded with one-sided information from incredibly well-funded political campaigns designed to convince voters new stadiums are in their best interests. And, of course, one could make the same "they have only themselves to blame" argument about the NFL owners who favor salary caps even though they are the ones paying the players increasing salaries.
It is our very great hope that the NFL and NFLPA are interested in working with their loyal fan base rather than against them. Thus far, despite the usual platitudes, neither side has demonstrated that they truly care about the serious issues affecting all fans. Their willingness to support these proposed measures will send a message to the fans that they are interested in growing the game in a way that doesn't just amount to dollars and cents.
Brian Frederick is the Executive Director of Sports Fans Coalition. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication and lives in Washington, D.C. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.