The amount of times this Daily Kos article about the lockout has been circulated has inspired me to set the record straight for my friends in the political blogosphere. Simply put, the article was a rehash of NFL Players Association (NFLPA) talking points -- in some cases, literally -- and since the NFL lockout is going to take on increasing significance for many in politics over the coming weeks and months, I just want to make sure everyone understands the situation.
This is about two groups fighting for the billions that we give them. Neither side is in the right. And if there is no football in the fall, both sides will be in the wrong.
Yes, the NFL owners opted out of the current bargaining agreement and are seeking a greater share of revenues -- as is their right. And the players don't want to work more for less money -- nobody does.
The players are not victims
The NFLPA has done the better job of appealing to the public thus far, and Super Bowl seatgate pretty much killed the NFL's chances of mounting a comeback and winning over fans. The NFLPA has asked fans to "do your part" to help "block the lockout" by signing a petition on the NFLPA's site. But fans' signatures on that petition do nothing more than strengthen the players' position, making a lockout all the more likely. This is not in the best interests of fans. Fans want to see football next year, but they don't care what revenue percentage players receive. (The best thing fans can do is unite into one giant collective voice on their own. Check out SaveNextSeason.com)
The NFLPA has asked multiple labor unions to support their cause and it's certainly in those unions' best interest to help labor win this battle. But there is an underlying sentiment among these organized working men and women -- when are the NFL players going to help the other unions out?
NFL teams are seriously overvalued
The strongest point that the players have is that the owners need to present the full financial picture. Everyone would benefit if the NFL owners opened up their books. But if they did, the numbers might paint a much different picture of the league's overall health than the players -- and the media -- have thus far presented.
By far, the best economic analysis of the lockout I have read makes the case that "the NFL is, today, the functional equivalent of the California real estate bubble of the early to middle 2000s." The teams are seriously overvalued. As for the Forbes' valuations of the teams referred to by the NFLPA (and the Kos article), the author, Ted Bartlett, writes:
Forbes is supposedly a journalistic enterprise, but in this case, I can't see how they're acting as anything more than a propaganda tool for the NFL. If you want to sell a new line of yacht, you advertise it in the Robb Report, and wealthy people will hopefully want to buy it. The NFL wants suckers to believe that its average team is worth $1 billion, so they're essentially advertising in Forbes. The magazine benefits from being the only source which annually receives and reports these numbers.
Bartlett's conclusion: "Simply put, the NFL needs to generate more profit to narrow the gap between what the franchises are really worth, and what Forbes says they're worth. That is the one sentence distillation of this whole [collective bargaining agreement] negotiation, and the NFL's reason for the obvious urgency behind it."
I'm not sure how it would benefit the players in the long run if the books were opened up and it became clear that the NFL is a seriously overvalued product. But we would certainly benefit from knowing exactly how much NFL teams are profiting from the subsidies that we have given them. Those are the numbers that matter.
We've already paid for an NFL season
Taxpayers (most of whom are NFL fans) have spent over $6.5 billion subsidizing NFL stadiums around the country, with nearly $4.5 billion of that coming in just the last 10 years. And those numbers don't include indirect subsidies, which experts say could push those figures at least 40% higher.
These stadium subsidies are important because they are what give the fans leverage and why this all matters in the political realm.
NFL owners and players have greatly increased their profits by getting the public to pay for their lavish new stadiums or for renovations. Owners threaten to move a team if the city/county/state doesn't pay up. The problem is that the gravy train is over. States are now broke. Even if they could afford to build new ones, stadiums are terrible investments. Virtually every economist who has looked at subsidization of stadiums agrees they provide little to no economic benefit to the community. (For more, see FieldofSchemes.com)
The economic impact of lockout is overstated
Now, the NFLPA has visited several cities, claiming that each NFL city stands to lose $160 million if there is no season. (Indeed, the Kos article simply parroted that talking point.) But, it's not true.
PolitiFact.com analyzed the claim and concluded:
Each independent expert we talked to believed there will be little economic impact if there is no NFL action next season, since they believe people will find other ways to spend their money. We rate the NFL Players Association's claim as False.
Basically, if people aren't spending money on football, they'll find some other interest. Now, that's not to say there won't be some economic harm. And there will be certain economic losers, such as those working in and around the stadium. On Thursday, the NFLPA is hosting a "Let Us Play/Let Us Work" panel in Washington. Keep in mind, SportsFans.org is fighting to make sure there is a season for those workers and other businesses who would be affected by a work stoppage. (And because we love the game.) But let's be clear -- if some workers don't have jobs because there isn't a season, NFL players will be partially to blame.
Owners are still to blame for most problems fans face
I'm certainly not suggesting that fans should side with the owners as this dispute drags on. Far from it. As the Super Bowl seatgate story illustrates, the NFL is willing to put profits before fans. From personal seat licenses to media blackouts to lawsuits against loyal fans, the transgressions of NFL owners could fill books. (A good read: Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love.) It all came to a head in Dallas when diehard fans who had spent thousands of dollars and flown thousands of miles found out that an NFL ticket doesn't even guarantee you a seat anymore.
I'm just saying that if we are going to criticize owners, we should do so from our own position as fans and consumers. The NFLPA is just as capable of spinning the media as the NFL is.
(Personally, I wish every team was like the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, the only fan-owned team in professional sports. The team can never be taken away, the books are open, the profits go back into the community and the fans have a true sense of ownership.)
Congressional action is justified
The likelihood of formal congressional involvement in the dispute grows stronger by the day. Which is why the NFL spent $2.5 million lobbying Congress last cycle. The NFLPA spent about a quarter of that and sent some players to the Hill to try to make their case. SportsFans.org has met with the staffs of several lawmakers -- and the White House -- raising awareness about the investments we've already made in the game and how a work stoppage would be harmful in other ways.
If Congress does get involved, it will be completely appropriate given the massive amount of taxpayer subsidies to NFL stadiums. And given the antitrust exemption that the NFL receives when negotiating its broadcast contracts. If the NFL wants to give those benefits up, so be it. But as long as we, as NFL fans and taxpayers, are invested in this game, too, our best interests should be considered as well.
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.