Friday, July 29, 2011

Did the Lockout Actually Make the NFL More Popular?

By Charlie Scaturro

Rob Carr/Getty Images North America
On the heels of Monday's announcement that the NFLPA and the owners had come to an agreement on a new 10 year CBA, the NFL has opened back up for business and it certainly seems like fans all around the country have embraced the return of professional football.

The "craziest free agent signing period in the history of the NFL," has had the internet, TV, and all major media outlets buzzing for the entire week as NFL general managers run around with lampshades on their heads throwing money at whichever free agents they think can help their teams.  And while these free agent spending sprees are the first step in the NFL's return to normalcy, perhaps the most important development that took place this week was how the fans have flocked back to the game they love.

From NBC Sports Pro Football Talk breaking their single-day record for internet traffic on July 27th, to Google Trends being dominated by NFL searches the entire week, to ESPN's John Clayton getting over 100,000 followers in his first day on Twitter, to Ticketmaster claiming incredible NFL ticket sales, it's clear that the fans missed football and there doesn't seem to be many who are holding a grudge over the 136 day lockout.  Some of these amazing statistics and numbers can probably be attributed to the fact that many decided to shun the NFL during the lockout, but the renewed interest in the NFL has certainly been impressive.

I think it's an understatement to say that the NFL is in demand right now and if the recent internet numbers didn't impress you, the fact that the NFL ticket resale market is up 22 percent from last season not only shows that people are interested in the game again but that they're willing to spend money on it again as well.

It would appear that fans are anything but traumatized by the lockout and when you really stop to think about what was lost, this reaction doesn't seem all that surprising.

Team organized off-season conditioning programs were lost and rookies, undrafted free agents, and young players were surely hurt by the lockout as were new head coaches and coordinators that will now have to install their systems under the gun, but let's look at the big picture here: we weren't even close to missing any regular season action, and the only game that will be missed is the Hall Of Fame Game.

One of the biggest casualties of the lockout were the people who worked for the NFL and various franchises around the league that either lost their jobs completely or had to take serious salary cuts during the lockout.  But with the NFL back in business it appears that most (if not all) of these employees have been welcomed back to their old jobs and compensated for the money they would have earned.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images North America
When you get right down to it, I think almost everyone will agree that the worst thing NFL fans had to deal with during the lockout was having to hear about the painstaking process of both sides trying to negotiate a compromise. 

Whenever an enterprise like the NFL drags their fans through an unpleasant lockout or strike situation there's always the fear that those who used to support the game will turn their back on it.  Major League Baseball saw this reaction from many of its loyal fans after the 1994-95' strike, and the NHL also experienced quite a backlash when they had to cancel the entire 2004-05' season.

Comparing those situations to what just happened to the NFL is apples to oranges, but the fact that the lockout lasted four and a half months certainly wasn't a pleasant experience for anyone (save for those lawyers who made millions in legal fees).  At the same time, it's pretty clear that the worst thing about the lockout from the fans perspective was having to listen to "lockout hysteria" for four and a half months.

But the question becomes, is it possible that the lockout actually made the NFL more popular?

When you take into account that the resounding opinion of nearly every football fan during the lockout was that they just wanted a deal to get done, this doesn't seem like such a ridiculous possibility.  Instead of people being angry that it took the NFLPA and the owners four and a half months to essentially split up $9 billion dollars, it seems like we're all just happy they figured it out and that there will be football again.  The overwhelming majority of fans didn't care how a deal got done and they didn't really care what the new CBA said, they just wanted football back.  Mission accomplished, but the NFL made everyone sweat it out for a couple of months by waiting until the last week of July to reach a deal.

I think the saying "you never know how much you care about something until it's gone," (or something to that effect) can aptly describe what has taken place between many fans and the NFL over the past few months.  Of course, the NFL never went anywhere but the mere thought of not having professional football and everything that comes along with it, was enough to make everyone nervous.  Since football fans faced the possibility (however slight it may have been) that the NFL season might be delayed or even cancelled, we can now appreciate the season and the game more than ever.  At least that's what the early numbers are saying.

I know there are fans who, for some reason, were personally offended by a lockout which did little to no damage to the NFL, and these people will vow never to attend a game or follow the sport again.  That's certainly their right as paying customers, but to me it seems a little extreme.  Listen, I get it, the lockout was terrible and the fact that owners and players were arguing over how to split up $9 billion dollars is beyond ridiculous, but is that really going to matter when the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers host the New Orleans Saints on September 8th?

In much the same way that Domino's (you know, the pizza delivery company) ran a fairly successful advertising campaign which actually consisted of customers badmouthing their product to show how they had improved it, the NFL might have increased it's popularity even though they frustrated and alienated their fan base with a four month argument between the NFLPA and the owners, while Roger Goodell sat at the end of the table trying to see how many peanut M&M's he could fit in his mouth at the same time. (Ok, he did more than that but he certainly took a lot of heat during the lockout)

It's still too early to tell if the drama, suspense, and renewed interest that the lockout seems to have added to the upcoming NFL season will actually continue, but the early returns are good and if we know one thing about the NFL in recent years it's that the league can essentially do no wrong.

The possibility that the NFL could become more popular as a result of the lockout goes against general common sense and I would imagine that it goes against most business models as well (unless you're Eric Cartman).  Then again, the fact that a game which consists of grown men dressed in heavy padding and spandex who run into each other for three hours at a time can generate $9 billion dollars annually doesn't make much sense either.

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