In wake of lockout, NFL risks losing casual fans

Posted: May 13, 2011

IN SAN FRANCISCO, in whatever they call Candlestick Park these days, the only way for reporters to get to the dressing rooms for postgame interviews is to walk on the field. It is the only place in the NFL still like that.

A few years ago, Eagles fans were crowded in the stands above the entrance to the locker rooms as reporters waited to be allowed in. It was the usual conglomeration: very loud, and liquid, and green. A friend from a Bay Area paper, unaccustomed to the experience, asked, "Who are they?" I said, "They're the ones who read the jump," which is to say, the ones who read to the end of the story, even if it jumps to another page.

They are the fans most hurt by the NFL's current lockout - hurt deep inside, insulted even. But they are coming back when it is over, and no one doubts it.

But what of the rest?

This is the NFL's gamble.

Here is a calculation that might portend a lot, or nothing. It counts the number of stories in the Daily News about the Eagles from April 1 to May 10, and compares it with the same time last year. It includes all the stories in the sports section containing the word "Eagles" - about the team, or the draft, or the NFL in general - but excludes things like former player obituaries and such. It also excludes stories strictly about the mechanics and politics of the lockout.

Last year: 109 stories.

This year: 37 stories.

True, last year was particularly newsy, what with Donovan McNabb's departure during that time period. This year would have been almost as newsy, if Kevin Kolb had been traded - except it couldn't possibly be almost as newsy because of the lockout. Which is the point.

Is that one, small metric - number of newspaper stories - meaningful? Does it suggest anything for the future that the newspaper space devoted to the Eagles is down by two-thirds during the offseason?

If it affects only the die-hards, then it probably isn't meaningful. But if it impacts the more casual fan and affects the future growth of the fan base - well, that is the NFL's dangerous game.

The league is counting on that growth. It needs it, like oxygen, given the economics of stadium construction and owning a cable network and such. That growth is integral to everything the NFL is built upon - and that is the main difference between now and the 1980s.

Back then, the NFL was a lumbering colossus. The best way to describe an owner back then was with two words: "fat" and "happy." This was true mostly because the players did not have free agency and the owners did not have much debt, because franchise values had not yet skyrocketed and most of the teams were then owned by people who bought them for a relative pittance. Also, the stadiums were either old and paid off or new and municipally funded.

It was a time, even with the television money growing at obscene rates, that commissioner Pete Rozelle's public and private negotiating stance was, as he said, "to leave the last dollar on the table," so that the networks could also make a nice profit on the NFL. Back then, the league grew without trying. It was almost quaint.

Then owners started spending big money to buy teams, and free agency happened, and Rozelle retired, and the Internet and cable offered new opportunities, and the pursuit of that last dollar became the goal. The result was a fan experience unparalleled in sports: 12 months a year, nonstop football. The televising of the scouting combine - of big men in shorts doing agility drills - will forever be the symbol of that pervasiveness.

The difference now is that even the casual fan makes more of an investment in time and interest, and consequently demands more in return. (Oh, and heaven help the lousy NFL teams in 2011, because their fans will be ruthless.)

There is this whole layer of interest between the die-hards and the bandwagoneers. They are the people who play in fantasy leagues. They are the people who drive up ticket prices on the secondary markets as a once-a-season splurge. They are the people who buy jerseys and put their own names on the back.

They are the ones in play here. They are a big part of the NFL in 2011, and they really did not exist the last time the league had a work stoppage.

The players went on strike in 1987, and they played a couple of games with scabs, and then the real players came back. Overall, CBS and NBC ratings were down 9 percent for the year. But ABC's "Monday Night Football" was actually up a tick, and the Super Bowl essentially was flat.

In Philadelphia, the Eagles did a 24.4 rating for the season opener, a 17.9 for the first scab game, and a 22.7 for the first game after the strike. The Eagles had a young, growing team, and everybody came back. That is clearly the owners' 2011 expectation.

But do the fantasy guys come back in the same numbers if they didn't have a chance to get together with their buddies for their traditional drunken draft barbecue? Do season ticketholders feel a meaningful squeeze if they can't sell those two or three games a year online for a profit? What if stores can't give those jerseys away at the holidays?

And what does all of that mean for the NFL's big enchilada - international growth? If they suddenly have to fight to retain what they have in the United States, how can they afford the investment required to grow internationally?

Here is a final measure to think about, the ratings for the first night of the NFL draft. The NFL Network's viewership was up by 1 percent this year, but ESPN's was down by 18 percent. The die-hards hung tough, but the more casual, bigger community was down.

That is what is at stake here. I just wish the NFL believed it. *

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