The confetti air-drop in Dallas at Super Bowl XLV was merely prelude to the real NFL paper war. And it's a war the owners cannot lose. They never could.
Union reps, league spokespersons and media will prattle on about fairness and revenues. The NFLPA may be right that the owners could share a bit more of the loot and still enjoy lots of profit and no lag to their rising franchise valuations. Both the NFLPA and the NFL should own up to their shameful treatment of retirees and to the unavoidable long term injuries that result from their violent but pleasing game. Yet as long as the NFL enjoys anti-trust protections, they really are the only game in town and whether the players believe or not, the league can do well -- quite well -- without them.
Why am I so sure?
In a breakfast I had not long ago with George Atallah, the thoroughly decent and caring NFLPA spokesperson and right-hand to DeMaurice Smith, I posed this questions to him:
"In preparation for this interview I tried to think, What could be the biggest nightmare scenario for the NFLPA? I thought it might be this, and I wonder if you have this nightmare: There is talk today of ownership lockout. In 1987 there was a player strike and replacement players played for three games and all the games counted. Financially stressed, striking players began to cross the picket line. In the final official game during the lockout on a nationally televised Monday Night Football game between the all-replacement Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys whose huge stars who had returned - Danny White, Tony Dorsett (Future Hall of Famer), Randy White (Future Hall of Famer), Ed Too Tall Jones -- the replacement Redskins stunned the star-studded Cowboys, winning 13-7. Now I've read where you and others have said in the context of NFL labor negotiations that NFL players are not "labor" they are "product." But I wonder if those 1987 replacement games show that the player-product is fungible -- that the game is really the product and that people will watch the game no matter what names are on the back of the jerseys. And if that could be demonstrated, like it may have been on the 1987 Redskins-Cowboys Monday Night game, isn't that the biggest nightmare for a professional sports players union?"
Mr. Atallah disagreed, claiming that fans like to watch their favorite players. I pointed, however, to a recent study published in Sports Business Journal conducted by Octagon where they measured consumer behavior motivations of fans in four major professional sports -- NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. "Team devotion" for NFL was highest percentage "passions driver" by far and "player affinity" was the lowest passion driver for NFL fans. Of course, consumer research is always vulnerable. But does anyone really stop rooting for a team when certain players disappear whether as a result of injury, trade, or retirement? (The fact that NFL players change teams so much because of free agency exacerbates the lack of player loyalty and the only thing left is team loyalty. )
Look at the New England Patriots. Drew Bledsoe -- beloved -- goes down and them this unknown guy named Tom Brady steps in. Tom Brady goes down and for a season, relatively unknown Matt Cassel steps in. Who is he? Who knows him? He becomes a big star. Did Patriot fans quit being Patriot fans at any point in the change of QB's? Does it matter who is in the uniform, really, as long as they're in your teams' uniform? Trent Green goes down and then we hear about a guy named Kurt Warner. Willie Parker disappears and now the name you say is Rashard Mendenhall. Does the name Caleb Hanie now have new "brand equity" for Bears fans? Players are fungible. It's the game that matters. We don't really miss the players when they're gone, but we would miss the game if it was never played again.
We loyally root for college teams every year and barely know the players' names. Can you tell me High School football games aren't interesting because big name stars aren't in them?
The game will always be interesting because of the game itself. The game makes whoever is inside it a star. Not the other way around. Until the NFL's anti-trust exemptions are lifted, they are virtually the only pro game in town.
Do the owners know this? I don't know. But let's go worst case scenario: the players are locked out or quit and the owners restock. Will you really not watch NFL football? Will you really cancel your fantasy league? Will you?
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