Sunday, May 29, 2011

Just Say No To A Lockout, Part 2

Had a nice response to my plea to the masses to stage an intervention on the NFL from JuiceLaw over at Archie Manning's Bastards.  In his piece, Juice offers the defense that, regardless of our feelings, nothing we do will be able to impact the efforts of corporate interests.
Gigantic corporations don't care what you think, because they provide a product or service that nobody else does. In this case, there isn't another NFL. The idea that caring or not caring about the lockout is going to fix anything or change anyone's mind is ludicrous. I am personally not enabling anything. Sure, collectively I may be part of the problem, but the only way to truly affect a billion dollar business would be for EVERYONE to not have anything to do with the NFL until they fix the labor issues, and THEN to not embrace them when they came back. And this is impossible. Unless or until there is somewhere else to get the Green Bay Packers. And there is not. Nothing is going to change regardless of what I do.

And I will give Juice some props on this point.  The NFL was able to survive a season by giving us replacement players....and we PAID MONEY to sit in Lambeau Field to watch them.  Since those days, despite that egregious move on the part of the owners, the NFL has continued to grow into the most-watched sport in the nation.

In other words, the NFL may be too big to fail.

I may be idealistic and big-picture sometimes, so I do understand his point that, in the grand scheme of things, my personal opinion isn't of major concern to the gods that control our nation's economy.  And just because I am unhappy with funneling money out of my local Wisconsin economy to fund Bentonville doesn't mean I stop going to Wal-Mart to save some money, also.

But I have a tough time buying in to the "we have no control" theory:  ergo, we may just as well sit back and accept it.  Maybe it's a little populist of me, but I don't like believing that the customers of this league have no power.  Because, in reality, we do.

The problem is that we are reactive instead of proactive, but make no doubt that public opinion can create (and has created) major sways in the corporate world.  As a result of the NHL lockout, the advances hockey had made in America, including a $600M network deal with NBC, was wiped out.  Now, you might find the NFL on Versus, if you're lucky (or interested). The NHL has become primarily funded through attendance again, and that's no path to prosperity in today's sports world.

The NHL suffered from acute disinterest, but MLB suffered true fan backlash, with many fans acting out by "striking" against baseball.  Incidents across the nation made headlines, with fans running out on the field and throwing money at players, throwing sticks onto the field, and, certainly not the least of the grievances, booing loudly throughout the games.  More importantly, baseball suffered financially, with over a 20% drop in attendance post-strike, and after losing $300M by not playing, operating revenue was cut from $1.87 billion in 1993 to $1.2 billion in 1994 and didn’t reach its former mark until 1997.

Remember Bob Uecker begging us to "Come On Back" to the stadium?  Yes, the fans had a voice and impacted the corporate world of professional sports.

The problem comes in that we, as fans, wait to have the worst happen to us.  We beg, we plead, we threaten...but we never let the sports world forget that we revolve around them, not the other way around.

But, take a look at the major sports' work stoppages in chronological order: 

Yes, in 1987, the NFL cancelled part of the season, and survived for the most part.

But in 1994, MLB had a strike and cancelled a season, and it took them years to recover financially.

In 1998, the NBA had a lockout and cancelled just part of a season,  and ticket sales and television ratings took three years to recover.

In 2004, the NHL had a lockout and cancelled an entire season, and never recovered.

Seeing the pattern?  Fans aren't putting up with it anymore. NFL (and NBA) are you paying attention?  We don't WANT the backlash, but as society has changed over the last twenty years, so have what we have come to expect from our teams we support. 

My point is that while I may agree with JuiceLaw that it would very difficult (if not impossible) to send a message NOW to the league that they will suffer if they cancel games, I disagree that a collective fan base cannot have a major impact.

But, going back to my original post, the first step would be to stop begging the players and owners that we will do ANYTHING for football.  The longer that message is sent, the longer this will go on...until both sides realize they have to agree to save what they have, not holding out for that extra billion dollars.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Shortened or Cancelled Season? I Say: Bring It On

It's time to have an NFL intervention.

Maybe you've seen the show on A&E, where some drug-addled person is confronted by their loved ones to convince them to stop destroying themselves.  The important line to take from that is "We love you too much to let this continue."  Tough love at its finest.

And that sentiment is what we, as Packer and NFL fans, need to send to the NFL owners and NFLPA in a clear, concise, and consistent message:  go ahead and cancel games.  We can live without you.

Hard to do, telling the Packers and football that we really don't care that much if they decide to postpone or cancel the season?  Absolutely.  And do we really believe it?  Of course we don't, just like people in an intervention don't WANT that person out of their lives to face a grim fate alone.  But you have to say it and make them believe it in order for them to save their own lives.

My analogy may be a bit of a stretch, but let's face facts.  There's nothing in these prolonged negotiations that revolves around anything else but money.  Sure, the players have a passion for the game, and the owners love building up their fan base and giving us a product that we'll love.  But in the end, this is a business, and a corporate business at that.  Despite our burning passion for our football team, in the end, the Packers know that we'll continue to pay top dollar to be a part of the experience.

I can just take a stroll through my Twitter timeline and find, at least once a day, someone who cries out, "Come on NFL!  Get the deal done!  I can't live without my Packer football!!!".  And it is that constant drumbeat, the demand from the fans and media throughout the nation that--no matter what--we will still be here when this is resolved, that keeps the standoff between players and owners without an end in sight.

We're enablers, except the drug of choice isn't cocaine or alcohol:  it's money, pure and simple.  In essence, the players and owners are fighting over which side will get that last billion dollars, and the more we demand that they get the season done at all costs, the more likely both sides will get their billion our expense.

Just looking at the bleacher seats at Lambeau Field, the bowl itself seats 62,713.  Now, if you raise every ticket price in the bowl by $10, and multiply that by 8 home games and two preseason games, you get $6,271,000 in additional revenue.  Now multiply that by 32 teams and you get about $200,000,000. 

In other words, the more we protest, the more likely we will price real fans out of the stadium.  And in actuality, there's more than enough revenue right now to ensure the existence of the NFL (and the Packers) for eternity.  This is no more a desirable outcome than postponing the season.

So, in the end, what do we want?  We want the two sides to come together and barter a deal over the already ridiculous amounts of money they are making based on our fanatical passions, and keep the game going without any more delays than we've already had.

And if you really, really care about the NFL, you have to not care about it.  As long as both the owners and players feel like their customers are willing to wait and pay anything to see the product back on the field, the more strength both sides feel they have in their justification to not negotiate.  The minute they feel their trump card is slipping away from them, the quicker they're going to rush to save what they have, instead of capitalizing on our blind passions.

Having lived through two strikes already in my lifetime, it is a hardship to go without Packer Sunday, even back when the Packers were barely worth watching.  But, the flip side of the coin is going to come down to us paying more for the product we already enjoy overpaying for, and worse, seeing that product change in order to win fans back.

The NHL is a perfect example of what owners and players not being willing to hammer out a deal can do to you.  Frankly, hockey was always "that Canadian sport" to us in America, and when it started gaining popularity in the late 1990's and early 2000's, there was a somewhat artificial feel to all the hype.  It was almost like the owners and networks were looking for another cash cow, and we were told repeatedly how much we should love hockey, especially now that half the teams had relocated to the U.S.  It was almost hypnotic, and even I started watching some games on TV.

The NHL tried to emulate the other major sports, inflating their salaries and signing lucrative television deals.  But when push came to shove in 2004, the resulting lockout cancelled the season and drove fans away, many permanently (myself included).  If you asked NHL players and owners that, if they knew cancelling the season would result in their permanent demotion from the major sports pantheon, don't you think they would have been more willing to hammer out a deal?

However, football has little in common with hockey, as the NFL is (by far) the most popular sport in the nation.  It has far more in common with the NBA during the Jordan Era, or the timeless devotion the MLB once enjoyed.  And both have suffered setbacks in their fan base due to lockouts.

The NBA players and owners thought that their unprecedented popularity would continue forever, despite the breakup of the mighty Bulls franchise in 1998 and the retirement of The Face of the League, Michael Jordan.  But the NBA no longer had the ambassadors it once had in Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or Jordan, and assumed that a new generation of selfish streetballers would continue to capture the imagination of the fans.  In the end, a lockout-shortened season turned off the long-time casual fans who tuned in every Christmas to watch the Bulls play "some other team", and the NBA has never since recaptured the magic it once had in the 80's and 90's.

Major League Baseball had so much more to lose, already a obsolescent game competing against other sports that had evolved into more exciting, flashy experiences.  Yet, the traditionalist fanbase was rabid and dedicated, sitting in the stands and continuing to score the game in a book in their laps.  But the cancelling of the 1994 season proved to be devastating not only to the casual fan, but those diehard fans as well.  Baseball was tarnished forever, and further damaged themselves with juiced balls and unregulated steroid use to attract the fans back.

Of all of those three sports, the NBA has survived their lockout the best, but is still nothing compared to the status it enjoyed in the 1980's, when it stood atop of even the NFL as the nation's most popular sport.  But in each case, the players and owners thought that the money train would continue, and that the short-term repercussions would disappear quickly once the game resumed. 

But in each case, when the casual fan was lost due to the work stoppage, the league had to alter its game to try and draw them back.  Baseball encouraged home runs, basketball encouraged one-on-one streetball that degenerated into foulfests.  Hockey never recovered, regardless of what they tried.

As the NFL owners and players continue their hard line, they are falling into the same trap.  And every time we declare that we will die without football, every time we beg for them to do whatever it takes to continue football uninterrupted, every time we pledge to pay more for the same product, the more likely it is that we will be without football and end up paying more for the same product later on.

It's insanity.  Plain and simple, it's insanity.  We're promising the players and owners that nothing they do will change our passion, and they're believing us.  We're falling right into the same pattern we've seen over and over again in the last twenty years.

Heck, the NFL themselves thought we were so passionate about the game that they put a bunch of replacement players in NFL uniforms and trotted them out on the field in 1987. They even made the games count, and unfortunately, the drop in revenue was far less than they had expected.  If you were like me, you watched those scab games, too. 

But this is a different time, and cheap tricks like replacement players will not be so easily tolerated by a fan base that is already paying top dollar to enjoy the game they love. 

The time has come, Packer fans and NFL fans, to save the game by doing the opposite of what is our nature to do:  let the players and owners believe that we actually don't care if they cancel the season.  Love the game, hate the lockout.  Enrapture yourself with your local college football teams.  Mention how you're excited to have your Sundays to watch the Brewers playoff drive.  Spend time with your family and loved ones.

But don't let the players and owners know they have us over a barrel.  In the end, it is all of us who will suffer the consequences of our enabling of their selfish self-destructive behaviors.

As hard as it is to say, if you love the game of football, love it so much that you're not willing to see it destroy itself.