If you follow sports you’ve probably heard that the NFL owners and players are arguing with each other. Each side wants a bigger share of the billions of dollars in revenue the league generates. The owners want more money; the players want more information about the teams’ finances; and to put it in clichéd terms, it’s billionaires fighting millionaires. Do they really think it’s a good idea to complain about their share of a gigantic financial pie when unemployment has been above 9% for the past two years? Apparently, they do. Now, people aren’t going to care too much if the season starts on schedule. If this debacle is out of the way by July, no big deal. But if this gets close to the start of the season, if it affects any games or comes very close to doing so, the NFL is playing with fire.
Right now the league dominates the American sports scene. I admit I’m a little bit biased, living in the football-mad South and Saints-crazed New Orleans, but the NFL is clearly the biggest of the Big Four North American sports leagues. The league is doing incredibly well on TV, and even in the recent economic downturn the vast majority of NFL teams routinely sell out their stadia for every game. It would be incredibly stupid for the teams and players to risk a nightmare along the lines of the 1994-95 MLB strike. That ruined baseball for years; it only made a decent comeback after the long-ball era and home run chases of the late 90s and early 2000s, an era that we now know was tainted by steroid use. I’m sure the teams and players of MLB must have cost themselves a ton of money due to the game’s decreased popularity. Why should the NFL take that risk? It’s in a great position right now. That doesn’t mean it’ll automatically always be the biggest league in the US, but a strike could certainly have damaging short and long term effects. What if a league such as the UFL makes a push for expansion and increased popularity during a lockout or strike, then tries to stick around? What if people decide they’d rather just watch college football, knowing that teams can’t threaten to relocate and there are no strikes or lockouts?
If these owners get taxpayer-subsidized stadium deals, billions in TV revenue, tons of money from tickets and suites and personal seat licenses and concessions, etc., and they still can’t make money, then they must be stupid. Which seems unlikely, given that most of them bought teams after acquiring vast sums of wealth in the business world.
To a certain extent, the players are the more sympathetic side. They play a violent sport and have incredibly short careers. Many face devastating health problems after retirement. There has been a great deal of talk about chronic traumatic encephalopathy and its side effects, with many suggesting a link between multiple concussions and later incidences of depression and even suicide. The players are (and rightly so) pushing for better health care.
But at the same time, it all eventually comes back to money. And while I can’t feel much sympathy for the owners, it’s hard to feel sorry for the players. There are tons of stories of athletes (in the NFL and elsewhere) who foolishly blow through their millions and end up bankrupt when they could have easily been set for life. (HBO’s Real Sports did a piece on one such player a few weeks ago.) Instead of living modestly, you get players living outlandish, extravagant lifestyles. Maybe they’re like Antonio Cromartie and they father so many children it takes quite a while just to remember their names. Seriously, how ridiculous is that? And he missed one, as this article points out. Those child support payments must really add up.
Now, to be fair, there are a lot of journeymen NFL players who never pile up the millions, and plenty of the superstars are responsible with their money. But it’s hard to feel sorry for NFL players when they burn through millions of dollars. Yes, I hope the NFL does a better job of dealing with concussions and their consequences. No, I don’t want an 18 game regular season. But I really don’t care what percentage of revenues the players get and how many expense credits the owners get to take before distributing revenues and all that other technical legal bullcrap. The bottom line is that I want a damn NFL season to start six months from now. And if the NFL and the players have any sense whatsoever, they’ll make it happen or they’ll end up kicking themselves in the long run.